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Clearing the way for defensible space against fires

Auburn expert offers tips on creating that crucial buffer zone
By: Gloria Young Journal Staff Writer
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For Scott Serenbetz, owner of Bushwackers, Inc. in Auburn, clearing land for fire prevention is a major focus of his company, which is celebrating 25 years in business. In a recent Q&A session, Serenbetz discussed some of the important aspects of clearing and maintaining defensible space. How did you get into this line of work? I have always enjoyed working outdoors. I was 16 when I started the business. It mostly started with an opportunity for some work — and some work I enjoyed —and it became a company that I could make a living with. I had employees in high school and college. After graduating from college, I put more time and money into it, but I always took the business seriously. I grew up on three acres in Meadow Vista and was aware from a young age of fire danger. What does your company do? People call on us to reduce the fire hazard, clear for new construction, improve the appearance of their land or just improve function or usability of the land. We typically work with someone who has acreage, but we sometimes work on smaller jobs as well. (For example) someone with a back yard that is badly overgrown and sometimes a typical landscaper is not up for doing that type of clearing. Typically what is the first thing you do when you survey a home’s acreage or landscaping? The first thing I’ll ask is what is their goal. Is it to make it fire safe? Is the goal to make the land more usable? Is the goal to make it more a park-like setting? After I know the goal, then I’ll approach the job and suggest things to fit the overall goal. It might be to comply with California code section 4291 (requirement for 100 feet of defensible space around the home). Are there problems you see frequently? With respect to fire hazard reduction, sometimes people have attempted (clearing space) themselves and they’ve trimmed up the trees but don’t space the trees out. They create a good vertical fire break but not horizontal and there’s not much separation between trees. Don’t focus on just trimming trees, but spacing them out correctly, which makes it defensible if firefighters are going to stop the fire and get it retarded on the ground. The general rule is you want some separation between the canopy of trees. The amount of space depends on the slope — the steeper the slope, the larger the distance you want. Are some trees more of a fire hazard than others? It’s something we consider when we are looking to thin out trees. Some trees will be more of a fire hazard and more work to maintain. Others will be considered a better tree to have on your property for its value. We take all that into consideration. Of the oak trees, live oaks are more of a fire hazard than the blue oaks or the valley oaks and black oaks. They’re still a fire hazard, but less so. And the live oaks take more maintenance. Is it necessary to remove all brush? Typically we’ll remove it all. Sometimes we’ll leave a clump or two of brush if the homeowner desires and it’s outside the drip line of another tree. A lot of people like to have all the brush removed. Sometimes customers like to keep a nice specimen of a manzanita that is sort of upright and a little more treelike versus a bush — manzanita and sometimes toyon. They are the most common types of bushes (in this area). Do homeowners have some common misconceptions about clearing defensible space? A common thing is that someone will start (the work) themselves and find that the toughest part of the job is not cutting the material, it is getting rid of the material. Often it is a lot more material than they think. If you were to go through and cut everything you need for a fire break, you have to be ready to get rid of the material. That’s where our equipment and expertise come in. Once you’ve done your work, what is involved in maintenance? For the most part you should be good for years, other than weed abatement, which is going to be typically an annual thing. Once a fire break is established, it can be maintained by us or by the homeowner or from other resources like smaller landscaping companies. In general, what advice can you provide about creating defensible space? This year looks like it is going to have a fire season much earlier than the last couple of years. We got a lot of rain last year. But with what looks like a drought year, fire season could be worse and start earlier. Last year there was a lot of growth, but it was raining in a lot of areas up until July, so fire season didn’t even really begin until July. This year fire season may begin earlier than that because things may be dry before that, which is more typical. Last year we had to put off a lot of jobs until July. When going in to do weed maintenance, you like to do it just as (the weeds) are getting dry, so you only have to do it once. It’s a question of getting that small window of time.