Héctor Hernández | Indefensible Inspections

Letters to the Editor
Letters to the Editor

Part 3 of 3.

In my previous letters, I wrote about the county’s ill-advised plan to recover defensible space inspection costs through Section 14902 of the California Health and Safety Code. In this letter, I’ll explain why I think the Fire Department is mistaken in its belief that California Public Resources Code, Section 4291, mandates annual defensible space inspections for all homes in a High Fire Hazard Severity Zone or Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone.

For years, the department has conducted annual defensible space inspections (basically, brush clearance inspections) for properties in fire zones designated as HFHSZ or VHFHSZ. But only after the department updated the mapping capabilities of its geographic information system did it discover that tens of thousands of homes had been overlooked. In 2023, 60,000 properties were added to the program. This year will see an additional 20,000. My property is among that second batch of properties.

In the January notice the Fire Department sent out to prospective new program participants, there was the following statement: “California Public Resources Code, Section 4291 mandates that all homes in the HFHSZ or VHFHSZ receive this important annual defensible space inspection.” Funny thing: 4291 doesn’t say that. When questioned about that inconsistency, a representative from the Defensible Space Inspection Unit replied that 4291 in conjunction with L.A. County Fire Code 325 provides the mandatory basis. Funny thing No. 2: 325 doesn’t say that, either.

Here’s what 4291 and 325 basically say: A defensible space of 100 feet must be maintained around a building or structure “in, upon, or adjoining a mountainous area, forest-covered lands, shrub-covered lands, grass-covered lands, or land that is covered with flammable material.” Code 325 takes it a step further and adds an extra layer of protection by extending that requirement to persons who have land adjacent to such buildings or structures or apiary (an additional structure not specified in 4291), which makes sense if you’re talking about homes with large properties and heavy vegetation or homes abutting lands with heavy vegetation. But my home isn’t “in, upon, or adjoining” any of those types of lands or buildings or structures or apiary. I live in an urban community of clustered homes and have exactly 10 feet of open space between my house and each of my side neighbors. Clearly, 4291 and 325 were not meant to apply to homes like mine.

The Fire Department has bitten off more than it can chew by having added 60,000 properties to the defensible space inspection program last year and, almost certainly, adding 20,000 this year, increasing overall mandatory participation to 132,000. 

But there is a way out. If the department adopts a “work smarter, not harder” approach to inspections, it would likely result in a drastic reduction of homes to be inspected. Before adding any new home to the program, the department should first determine if that home is at a higher RISK of fire damage by being in a VHFHSZ or HFHSZ. After all, zone maps — created under the direction of the Office of the State Fire Marshal — don’t assess risk. They only assess hazard, according to the Fire Marshal’s website. And risk is the potential damage a fire can cause, taking into account mitigation measures.

What are some mitigation measures? How about concrete roof tiles? My home has them. Or cultivated ground cover such as green grass? Again, my home has it. Ornamental plants and trees that are individually planted, spaced and maintained so they don’t form a means of transmitting fire from native growth to the home? Once again, my home has them. And what are other considerations for determining risk? How about proximity to a fire hydrant? I’m 250 feet from one. Or proximity to a fire station? I’m less than 2 miles from two different fire stations.

Inspecting 132,000 properties every year is an unnecessary workload for the Fire Department, especially when neither Public Resources Code 4291 nor Fire Code 325 require it. The department should cull the list with an eye to identifying properties that are at greater risk of fire, and not simply because they’re in a VHFHSZ or HFHSZ.

Héctor Hernández

Santa Clarita

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