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Lake Hills forms fire safe council

By From page A1 | August 08, 2012

Residents of the Lake Hills neighborhood have relented to pressure from El Dorado Hills Fire Chief Dave Roberts and formed a fire safe council to encourage promised Bureau of Reclamation efforts to remove years of flammable dry brush in the neighboring Folsom Lake State Recreation Area.

The council is also committed to reducing fire danger inside the woodsy community, 300-or-so homes clustered along Guadalupe and Encina drives between Brown’s Ravine and Lakehills Drive along the boundary of the recreation area.

Unlike the neighboring Waterford, Summit and Southpointe subdivisions, which it predates by a decade or more, Lake Hills was not a planned community — a fact that contributes to a its rustic charm but is a detriment to fire safety on several fronts.

Lacking a homeowners association with the authority to enforce fuel load reduction, the neighborhood has become overgrown, Chief Roberts emphasized to the two-dozen or so attendees at the council’s third meeting, held on July 31 at Station 85.

Ample dry brush, older buildings, steep lakeside terrain, prevailing uphill winds, limited ingress and egress, small lots with inadequate setbacks, overhead power lines, narrow streets and exposed wood siding, decking and roofs all mimic conditions in two memorable urban California firestorms — Oakland Hills in 1991 and Angora in 2007 — and constitute as much a threat as the fuel load in the adjoining recreation area, said Roberts.

The Folsom Lake SRA is co-managed by the State Parks and Recreation Department and the federal Bureau of Reclamation under a recently signed managing partner agreement that shifts responsibility for fire suppression and prevention to Reclamation.

Reclamation Area Manager Mike Finnegan has committed $2,000 to brush clearing in the park, between the lake and the Lake Hills neighborhood, to commence as soon as their inmate crews finish mopping up the Robbers Fire in the American River canyon east of Auburn.

A dramatic July 22 house fire underscored the Lake Hills fire danger and the importance of the council. It destroyed a two-story cottage with frightening efficiency on a hot, dry Sunday afternoon. The combination of shake shingle siding and a freshly oiled deck had the structure and surrounding landscaping fully engulfed when firefighters arrived. See the Aug. 1 Village Life or the website for details on the fire.

The charred shell remains visible from Guadalupe Drive, near the epicenter of the training exercise that attracted an estimated 300 firefighters from neighboring agencies on June 9.

The irony of a devastating fire so close in time and place to the training wasn’t lost on Roberts, who appealed to the nonprofit El Dorado Hills Firefighters Association the week after the fire, requesting they match reclamation’s $2,000, and making the fledgling council one for one in grant applications.

The $4,000 may not seem like much, said Roberts, but it will fund almost a month of crew time, resulting in “a huge chunk of this problem solved pretty quickly.”

Several Lake Hills residents reported visiting firefighters being shocked at the volume of combustible “ladder fuels” — the dead, dry branches that boost a ground fire into the tree canopy — in the neighboring park.

Roberts agreed and called Lake Hills “by far the biggest fire threat in this district,” lamenting that overhead branches and roadside brush that sprawls into narrow, twisty and steep streets make it difficult to get a large fire engine to some parcels.

He called Encina Drive “terrible,” adding, “The way it is now, it would be very risky to put a fire crew in there.”

El Dorado Hills Fire Marshal Brad Ballenger offered a solution. The El Dorado County Department of Transportation will clear brush that blocks road signs and street addresses.

“They’ll be in here in the fall,” he said, then warned the council to expect complaints because, “They take a lot of fuel out.”

But conditions in the recreation area remain the primary concern.

The park itself is off-limits to fuel load reduction by its neighbors, creating what one resident called a “perfect storm” of fire danger — dense, dry brush, dead branches and pitch-saturated, drought-damaged pine trees that stand like Roman candles waiting to be lit.

Lakeside hiking and equestrian trails crisscross the park, which is a 300- to 600-foot wide strip of land between the lake and the houses. Hidden coves, easily accessed by boat, make ideal party spots. Residents report loud gatherings on weekends and worry that a shoreline campfire could provide the spark that turns their neighborhood into the next Oakland Hills or Angora.

Fresh fire rings can be found on the beach within ember-popping distance of dry grass.

State park officials contacted in May promised to increase their presence in the remote coves, asking residents to notify them of any suspicious activity.

Supervising Park Ranger Rich Preston confirmed by phone last week that rangers issued six citations for illegal camping and ground fires on July 19, and discovered a camp fire on June 13, but that no other incidents had been reported.

Unsanctioned trails in the area may be blocked, he said. Signage is also being considered to reinforce prohibitions against camping, fires and excessive noise.

Longtime Lake Hills residents recall terrifying fires in the past. Fred and Cheryl Adler told their story in the June 6 Village Life.

Fred described standing on his shake roof in 1988, garden hose in hand, watching the prevailing lake wind push a fast-moving fire through the low lakeside brush. Then the fire launched itself past his home at the end of Lakehills Drive onto Iron Mountain.

He watched the tree canopy ignite, incinerating hundred-year oaks and sap-laden pines. Cheryl Adler likened it to a hurricane, “throwing hot stuff all over” as it ascended the mountain.

Fred recalled watching the firestorm reverse direction and bear down on his dream house. All the roof soaking he’d accomplished in the prior hour evaporated in an instant, sending him scurrying for his ladder, his lungs raw with heat and smoke.

A tanker came in low off the lake and dropped a shroud of fire retardant on the advancing maelstrom, nearly plowing into Iron Mountain in the process, but buying enough time for firefighters to arrive and save the house.

The district has since implemented hazard reduction programs designed to minimize the conditions that lead to such pyrotechnics. Ballenger oversees the inspection of approximately 5,000 lots each year, and said he sent roughly 450 letters to non-compliant parcel owners. “But we can only do so much.”

Fire safe councils can do even more, with access to resources that fire departments, homeowners associations and individual residents don’t have:

• Grant funding
• Access to chippers and dumpsters
• Low-cost brush crews
• Potential permission to reduce fuel loads in state or federal lands

A couple dozen Lake Hills homes border the park, some within feet of the boundary. Manicured lawns abut parklands that haven’t seen a weed whipper or chain saw since 2005.

Attorney Rick Linkert’s back yard is one of them. He said he’s begged state park officials for fuel load reduction in the park for 10 years. His efforts were instrumental in the formation of the council, the 18th fire safe council in El Dorado County, according the county fire safe website, edcfiresafe.org.

Linkert credits El Dorado Hills fire volunteer Jim Stewart for calling the initial fire safe council meeting. Stewart sits on the county fire safe board, and has encouraged the Lake Hills council members to organize events and fundraise.

His friend and neighbor Francis McCarthy offered to chair the council. Current El Dorado Hills Fire Board member John Hidahl stepped up as vice chair.

Peggy Willis signed on as recording secretary, and is currently trying to pull together a comprehensive neighborhood contact sheet. She asked Lake Hills residents who haven’t already done so to e-mail contact information — name, address, phone and e-mail — to
[email protected].

It’s too late for the Lake Hills council to qualify for any of the $4.5 million in grants California Fire Safe Councils will be awarded in 2013, but Stewart said chippers can be brought in on relatively short notice. Lake Hills residents can also self-fund brush mitigation efforts in the neighborhood and, according to Bureau Wildland Fire Regional Coordinator Matt See, with the appropriate permissions they can contribute to mitigation efforts in the recreation area.

Stewart encouraged the council members to include adjacent communities, but Ballenger pointed out that the adjacent subdivision homeowners associations have their own fuel reduction programs that are even stricter than district standards.

The council formed an outreach committee charged with creating a simple flier describing the council’s mission and calling for some type of community gathering to raise awareness of the fire danger and the council’s efforts.

When the July 31 Lake Hills Fire Safe Council meeting adjourned, no one left the room. Residents lined up to ask questions of See, Ballenger and Roberts. Neighbors who’d lived near each other for years but never met exchanged ideas for central chipper locations and staging areas for the brush-clearing crews they hope to see later this summer.

The next Lake Hills Fire Safe Council meeting will be held at El Dorado Hills Fire Station 85 at 7 p.m. on Aug. 14. The following Sunday afternoon, Aug. 19, the inaugural Lake Hills Fire Safe barbecue and neighborhood mixer will be held in El Sur Court between 4 and 6 p.m.

Roberts offered his firefighters’ culinary capabilities. Reached by phone for a menu status, McCarthy said he wasn’t sure what the turnout might be. “We might want to save that offer for a clean-up day when we’ve got more people signed up and we’ve all worked up an appetite.”

Mike Roberts


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