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Del Mar to step up fire hazard inspections

DEL MAR — While it may be true that only you can prevent forest fires, Del Mar residents will soon get help when it comes to reducing the hazards that can fuel a blaze.
At the Aug. 2 meeting, City Council members authorized an agreement with a private company for a year-round weed abatement program to decrease the risk from fires caused by common ignition sources such as overgrown or dead vegetation.
The Fire Department currently conducts seasonal inspections, usually just before fire season, between April and August. But due to a lack of resources these inspections generally focus on the approximately 370 homes in the wild-land urban interface area where the hazard is greater.
“Conducting multiple property inspections, enforcing codes and seeking compliance by property owners requires an enormous amount of staff time, with no cost recovery,” the staff reports states.
After reviewing several program options, including those that offered year-round, seasonal or complaint-only inspections, staff recommended contracting with Fire Prevention Services Inc.
The company will perform inspections, give notice to property owners and, if necessary, perform the forced abatement under the direction of the fire marshal at no cost to the city.
Under the agreement, Fire Prevention Services will conduct regular inspections throughout the city. If problems are identified, a courtesy notice will be mailed giving the owner 30 days to correct them.
If the problems persist, photos will be taken and a 15-day notice will be sent by certified mail. Upon reinspection, a sign will be posted on the property giving the owner five days to clear the hazard. Since the latter two are provisions of the state code, the new agreement will give property owners 50 days rather than 20 to address problems.
If no action is taken, the contract inspector will meet with the fire marshal, who will review the case and make a decision on forced abated.
“There’s plenty of opportunities to make sure that the public has the ability to remove their own weeds on their own time,” Fire Marshal Robert Scott said.
Scott will have the authority to reissue warnings, especially for special circumstances such as extended vacations or a family illness. “We’re very in tune to taking care of the community,” he said. “The goal is not to abate. It’s to reduce the hazard.”
As for ornamental landscaping, Scott said the private contract inspectors “know their plants very well” and can tell the difference between dead and dormant.
“Their inspectors are very experienced and well-versed in different types of plants and material,” he said.
Scott said forced abatement is rare. Of the 388 notices sent to Encinitas residents last year, only six were abated. The cost is generally between $500 and $8,000, with the high end being for a “fair-sized” lot.
Residents should clear property voluntarily because abatement is more expensive, he said. Liens can be placed on homes if owners do not pay for the process.
Scott said some owners may be upset about getting a notice, especially if they have never received one before.
“They don’t feel that they should receive a notice because their plants are beautiful and they like the seclusion,” he said. Owners can appeal to City Council, but that decision is final.
Mayor Richard Earnest said the goal is not to be heavy-handed. “It’s to try to be logical (and) sensitive to the situation, but to get the job done ultimately for the safety of the community,” he said.
“It is a change from what we’ve done historically and we all know that our city rebels against any change,” he said. “I think this is one that is organized.”
“If we have a couple of abatement actions per year in Del Mar I think that will help solve a serious but rare problem,” Councilman Don Mosier said.
Overgrown vegetation is defined as grass or weeds more than 6 feet high; dense shrubs with dead leaves or undergrowth; trees with dead leaves, limbs or branches; small diameter branches within 10 feet of a roof or chimney outlet; and tree branches that overhang streets and impede fire truck access.
Encinitas, Oceanside and Rancho Santa Fe have annual programs, while Solana Beach and Carlsbad have seasonal ones. Scott said he will be recommending an annual contract for Solana Beach next month. Ten cities in San Diego have the same contract with Fire Prevention Services, and all have had positive results, Scott said.
Despite low participation, Del Mar will continue to offer its Prune in June program, which allows residents to order and use a Dumpster for free to clear vegetation.
To administer the new abatement program, council also introduced an amendment that will align the Del Mar municipal code with state requirements and allow the city to declare weeds and overgrown brush as a fire hazard and remove that hazard.
“We were made aware with the Witch Creek Fire that we’re vulnerable,” Councilman Carl Hilliard said. “We have to do what we can do to protect the city and reduce the vulnerability.”