RSF Fire District stresses hazard abatement, defensible space

Trees marked for removal at a private property in Rancho Santa Fe.
(Karen Billing)

When it comes to creating and maintaining fire-resistive communities, every resident and property owner must play their part.

The Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District has been working to make sure local residents are taking crucial steps to help mitigate the threat of wildland fires, which are growing in size, intensity and destructiveness in California.

“Fire hazard abatement, defensible space and ignition resistant construction features do work,” said RSF Fire Chief Fred Cox. “The 2007 Witch Creek Fire burned through 4S Ranch, Del Dios, Fairbanks Ranch, the Crosby, Cielo and Rancho Santa Fe, destroying 60 homes and damaging 21 others. However, not a single home that was built to the fire district’s standards that went into effect in 1996 was destroyed.”

The fire district takes time to travel the communities’ roads and look out for potential hazards on people’s properties, issuing notices to take preventative action. Conor Lenehan, district forester and fire prevention specialist, said they don’t want homeowners to feel as though they are being picked on, but they do want to ensure every home and property is fire-hardened ahead of the fire season.

If a hazard is spotted, the district sends a notice to the homeowner giving 15 days to comply.

After the 15-day time period, the inspector takes another look to see if there has been some movement on the abatement work. If not, a second notice is issued with an additional 10 days to comply.

If work is not started within that 10 days, a final notice is issued. After 35 business days has passed without action, a sign is posted on the property that the fire hazard needs to be abated.

According to Lenehan, the fire department has the authority to force abate the property if it is deemed a community hazard and a lien is placed on the property. Every year, they must force abate several properties.

“We don’t like force abating properties, it puts us in an uncomfortable position,” Lenehan said, “We try to work with property owners as best as we can. We do everything in our power to work with and help the homeowner.”

As many are aware, a big concern for Rancho Santa Fe right now is the health of the eucalyptus forest. According to the Covenant Forest Health Study, 95 percent of Rancho Santa Fe’s dead and dying trees are on private property.

“A lot of the red gum eucalyptus are looking as bad as I can remember, the worst they’ve looked in my seven years of being here,” Lenehan said. “I thought with all the water from the rains they would be doing better but the leap psyllids are taking a toll.”

The plant-juice sucking insects extract nutrients from the leaves, which leads to leaf drop. The extreme defoliation presents a major fire risk.

“Puerta Del Sol is a street that has a lot of dead and dying red gum eucalyptus and dense native understory,” Lenehan said of the vegetation and leaf litter under the trees that creates a higher fuel load that can be dangerous in a wildfire.

Recently, one local Puerta Del Sol resident received a notice about hazards on her property and worked with the fire district and an arborist to clear her property of more than 20 eucalyptus trees.

Living at her home on for over 40 years, she was nostalgic for the time when the trees were all green and beautiful. One tree in particular always seemed to arch toward her home, like a protective hand. That special tree was one of many that had to be removed from groves in her front and back yard, as well as along her driveway.

“It’s so sad to see them all go, those residents who are affected are really suffering,” she said, while understanding that the purpose for the removal is keeping everyone safe.

A tree marked for removal on a private property.
(Karen Billing)

Defensible space

To improve the community’s wildfire defense, the fire district recently implemented a new three-zone defensible space standard. Defensible space is the first 100 feet surrounding a structure where plants, other landscape elements and native vegetation are maintained to decrease the fire hazard and give firefighters a safer environment to protect a home.

The most important area to focus on to prevent home ignition is Zone 1, which consists of the home itself and the first five feet around it. Within this zone there should hardscape only, no plants, mulch, or combustible furniture. Move any flammable material–leaf litter, firewood, trash cans, anything that can burn–away from exterior walls.

Lenehan said trees should be trimmed and kept away from the structure and roofline and roofs and gutters should be cleared of leaf litter.

Mulch is another big one that the fire district warns about within this first zone, he said. Mulch should not be located within five feet of a structure as it is a receptive fuel bed for fire embers and can burn with surprising intensity.

Of the homes destroyed in 2007, it is estimated that 80 percent were ignited by flying embers with mulch near the base of the homes being a major contributing factor. Instead, use decorative rock, decomposed granite, or concrete.

“We are more than happy to meet with residents and conduct a property inspection, looking at defensible space as well as building construction,”Lenehan said.

If the home was not built with enhanced ignition-resistive construction, the fire district said there are steps that can be taken to improve survivability.

Ember-resistive metal attic and foundation vents can be installed on existing homes, greatly decreasing the chance of embers getting inside the attic or crawl space. Installing vents is one of the least expensive but most effective enhancements homeowners can do to make their home more fire-resistive. Additionally, upgrading to noncombustible roofing and siding, along with enclosing roof eves, are other important steps to consider. They may be more expensive, but can add a significant layer of protection.

According to the fire district, the second and third zones of defensible space are designed to lessen heat transfer and break the continuity of fuel.

In Zone 2, within 5-50 feet of a structure, homeowners should remove all vegetation and trees that are not fire resistive. A list of fire resistive plants can be obtained through the fire district.

Any weeds or dead grasses need to be cut to a maximum height of four inches. Single specimens of trees, ornamental shrubbery, or ground covers are acceptable provided they are irrigated and do not provide a way for fire to rapidly transfer to any structure. The fire district can assist in the plant species and spacing requirements.

Lastly in Zone 3, from 50-100 feet of the structure, combustible native vegetation may remain as long as the vegetation does not occupy more than 20 percent of the zone. The fire district recommends that vegetation is thinned by removing every third plant as well as all dead and dying plant material.

For more information regarding the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District’s requirements, codes, and ordinances, as well as additional suggestions to help prepare your home for wildfire, visit,