Two weeks ago, I along with hundreds of other homeowners in West Marin received a letter from the Marin County Fire Department reminding us what the California Public Resources Code has to say about fire prevention. It was a somber message:

“Defensible space is required by law (4290 and 4291 PRC) for all property owners in State Responsibility Areas (SRA). Your property is located in an SRA wildland/urban-interface area and is at risk of destruction by wildfire. The attached form must be returned by mail or completed online at within 30 days.”


The form includes 10 requirements
that range from clearing a “defensible space 100 feet from all structures” and removing “all dead vegetation (leaves, needles, branches etc.) and cut or mowed all dry grass within 100 feet of my home” to removing “all tree limbs on mature trees within 10 feet of the ground” and removing “tree limbs that are within 10 feet of my chimney or that over hang my roof.”

The letter, which was signed by Fire Chief Ken Massucco, warned: “Fire-prevention staff from the Marin County Fire Department will inspect all properties in wildfire-prone areas in 2008 and subsequent years. Any property not in compliance may face enforcement action or fines from the Marin County fire marshal.”

Although the only “wildland” my property interfaces with, other than neighboring households, is a horse pasture, I took the notice seriously. I can recall a breakfast 13 years ago when from my dining-room table I could see towering flames sweeping down Inverness Ridge on the other side of Tomales Bay. That fire destroyed 45 houses and blackened 12,000 acres. It was so intense that for two hours on the morning of Oct. 4, 1995, the fire consumed roughly an acre of wildland per second.

In short, fires spread all too easily. As noted here three weeks ago, fires swept through Tomales in 1877, 1891, 1898, and 1920, destroying much of the town each time. The Marin Independent Journal last November reported: “Pete Martin, a retired Marin County Fire Department captain, said [in a meeting at the Mill Valley Community Center] there have been 10 major fires in Marin, starting in 1881 when a Corte Madera farmer burning brush sparked a 65,000-acre fire.

“In September 1923, a 40,000-acre fire raged through Ignacio Valley, destroying 17 homes. That same day, 584 homes were destroyed by fire in the Berkeley Hills. Another 110 homes were lost in the 1929 Mill Valley blaze, Martin said. Most of the fires started in September and were fed by what Martin called ‘devil winds,’ blowing from the inland hills toward the ocean, very similar to the Santa Ana winds in Southern California.”

Last July, I had hauled two pickup-truck loads of brush and limbs to a fire department disposal site in Olema, but after receiving the fire chief’s letter, I set out to clear away some more. I cut low limbs off 10 pine trees plus an ornamental tree of unknown variety with a trunk as hard as iron — and just about as heavy. I cut back coyote brush along my driveway, and for the third time this year, I trimmed grass around my cabin. It was strenuous work, especially because much of the cut foliage had to be dragged nearly 100 yards to a brush pile at the foot of my driveway.

Some of the work to be done, however, required more than time and sweat. I had already felled one dead pine tree this summer, but now I was confronted with a significantly larger one. In addition, some large limbs hanging over my roof had to be removed, and I figured it would be risky for both me and the roof to climb a tree with a chainsaw and cut them off myself.


Nick Whitney uses a pruning hook to trim small branches off one pine tree before cutting larger branches off another.

So I called Nick Whitney of Pacific Slope, and last Thursday he and his crew of tree trimmers showed up. The three of them spent half a day felling the dead pine, cutting branches away from my roof, using a blower to clean pine needles from my rain gutter, chipping all the foliage they’d cut, chipping my own brush pile, and then hauling all the chippings away. By the time they left, my cabin looked noticeably less vulnerable to wildfires.

Fire Chief Massucco had written that “2008 is already the most devastating fire season on record in Northern California, and fire danger will be at its worst in September and October. Marin County is one of the most fire-prone landscapes in California and has a long history of destructive wildfires.”

It is obvious that numerous homes in Inverness and Inverness Park, as well as throughout the San Geronimo Valley, are nowhere near compliance with the fire department’s orders, so on Friday I was feeling a bit smug when I paid a visit on friends in Inverness Park. As it happened, I was outdoors talking to Terry Gray when a drizzle that soon turned into light rain began falling.

There goes the fire season,” I remarked. “Well, that’s good,” responded Terry, somewhat surprised by the sigh in my voice. Sheepishly I realized I probably sounded like an architect of America’s anti-missile system who’s disappointed when Russia doesn’t attack. So I quickly agreed, “Yes, it is good the fire season’s over.”

Now that warm weather is back, however, that may not be the case.