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Fire safety law demands neighbors work together

Auburn makes ‘defensible space’ rules permanent
By: Jon Schultz, Journal Staff Writer
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In Auburn, neighborly relations require a bit more than just lending a cup of sugar – a law requiring neighbors to work together just became permanent.
While you can’t get a ticket for refusing to open your pantry to a neighbor in need, you cannot ignore their request to clear brush and trees within 100 feet of their home, even if that means cleaning up your own property. Well, you can, it just comes with a fee. 
 
Auburn City Council voted in 2010 to approve an ordinance that requires the owner of a property one acre or greater in size to provide, at minimum, 100 feet of “defensible space” from any structure – even if it is located on an adjoining property.  The law also says the owner has an option of allowing the adjoining property owner to establish and maintain that defensible space.
 
The law, implemented a year after the 49 Fire in Auburn that destroyed about 60 buildings, including homes and businesses, was to sunset this May, but City Council voted Monday to make it permanent.
 
“I think this ordinance – a case of ensuring neighbors are helping neighbors clear the dangerous brush – is very important, so I support the sunset removal,” said Mayor Kevin Hanley, chairman of the Greater Auburn Area Fire Safe Council. “Placer County will be taking up the same issue within the next two weeks. They also have a sunset.”
 
Patsy Shrum has lived on Gold Street near Robie Point for the past 20 years, and she embodies what Auburn Fire Chief Mark D’Ambrogi described as the heart of the ordinance.
 
With her neighbor ailing and dealing with the loss of his son, Shrum picked up the tab to clear overgrown brush and vegetation near his house.
 
“Because he’s so ill and he can’t do it, we hired someone to come cut all around his home there,” she said. “So of course we have to make sure it’s safe for everybody. That’s the main thing: We want it safe for everybody.”
 
If neighbors can’t agree, the fire department can intervene and try to reach a solution, but in the case of refusal to address the problem, the city will front the cost to clear the area and then bill the property owner who is noncompliant. 
 
“The fire doesn’t care whose property it is on,” D’Ambrogi said.
 
Full enforcement has only happened twice, once in 2011 and again in 2012 on the same undeveloped 10-acre lot off Maidu Drive, where the absent owner allowed it to become overgrown – creating a problem for homes on Riverview Drive that back up to the lot, he said.
 
The city assessed the cost of the clean up, between $2,500 and $3,500, onto the property tax of the landowner, D’Ambrogi said.
 
“That’s a pretty significant area,” he said. “If the fire started in there and gets going, it can cause some damage, so we want to create that buffer there.”
 
But the idea of the ordinance is not to have the city clean up after complacent owners, rather its intent is to encourage neighbors to work together, D’Ambrogi said.
 
So far, it has accomplished that goal, he said.
 
“It has been really successful to the point that we haven’t had to use it to its fullest capacity, other than one or two instances,” D’Ambrogi said. “But it creates a real good network of neighbors working together.” 
 
The ordinance only applies to property within the “very high” and “high” fire hazard severity zones in Auburn, which D’Ambrogi said encompasses pretty much all of the city except the core Downtown area.
 
Defensible space for the first 30 feet from a structure should be “lean, mean and green” featuring noncombustible vegetation, lawns and greenery; for the next 70 feet, natural brush should be cleared out and trees should be spaced out and “limbed up,” he said.
 
Jon Schultz can be reached at jons@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_AJNews