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Another View: Enforce the Hazardous Vegetation Abatement Ordinance

Another View
By: Kevin Hanley
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As President Harry Truman was leaving office, he wondered out loud about the managerial skills of General Eisenhower, the incoming president, in the political world. “He’ll sit there all day saying do this, do that, and nothing will happen,” said Truman. “Poor Ike — it won’t be bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.” Ultimately, Truman was wrong about Ike’s political skills in getting things done, but right on the larger point about how bureaucratic obstacles can too often impede effective policy implementation. In my eight years on the Auburn City Council and over 20 years working for the California Legislature, I’ve seen first-hand that it is essential for elected leaders to take an active role in ensuring that good laws are implemented and are accomplishing their intended purpose. Passing a new ordinance or law is just the beginning of the story, not the end. Without oversight by elected officials, a new ordinance or law can quickly become a “dead letter,” sitting on a shelf gathering dust. This observation will be tested in 2011 as various fire districts in Placer County implement the new Hazardous Vegetation Abatement Ordinance, as adopted by the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 14. The purpose of the ordinance is to help responsible landowners save their families and homes and to protect firefighters from preventable firestorms. A common problem in Placer County is the situation in which a responsible landowner, who has tried, to the best of his ability, to comply with state law by removing dry brush, dead trees and tree limbs 100 feet from around his home but is stopped from achieving adequate “defensible space” because an adjacent landowner on an unimproved parcel irresponsibly allows dangerous levels of fire fuels to pile up year after year. The irresponsible landowner thereby threatens the responsible landowner and puts the lives of responding firefighters in jeopardy. This problem occurred in the devastating 49 Fire of 2009, which resulted in the destruction of 63 homes and several businesses. The new county ordinance is part of the fuels reduction solution. It provides an opportunity for a responsible landowner who is unable to obtain the required defensible space around his home because of the hazardous fire fuel conditions on an adjacent, unimproved property to register a complaint about this public safety problem and to activate county assistance. Upon receiving a complaint, fire officials would first try to obtain voluntary compliance from the irresponsible property owner in removing the fire fuels. As a last resort, the ordinance provides for the implementation of a compulsory abatement order to ensure that the fire fuels are removed. In early 2010, the Auburn City Council passed a similar ordinance. With this enhanced authority, and along with volunteer efforts like “Project Canyon Safe” and an existing weed abatement ordinance, the city’s fire chief is achieving more defensible space each year. We have found in the City of Auburn that in most cases a compulsory abatement order is not necessary to obtain full compliance with the law once the landowner is notified of the problem. I salute the Placer County Supervisors for enacting the ordinance as an important step toward proactive action to reduce the fire threat. But county residents need supervisors who will champion this effort, meet with residents with fire hazard complaints, work with fire officials to get action on the ground and hold regular oversight hearings on implementation of this important effort. This responsibility shouldn’t be delegated to the fire services. The burden falls on the elected supervisors as to whether the new ordinance becomes a “dead letter” that sits and gathers dust on the shelf or an aggressive tool to save lives, homes, firefighters and taxpayer dollars. Kevin Hanley serves on the Auburn City Council and as chairman of the Greater Auburn Area Fire Safe Council.