Fire season declared; prevention tips offered

– Firefighters battled several blazes last weekend and
forecasters say the days are heating up after the official start of
the summer fire season Monday.
By Lori Stuenkel

Gilroy – Firefighters battled several blazes last weekend and forecasters say the days are heating up after the official start of the summer fire season Monday.

After area firefighters quelled two small grass fires near Gilroy and a 500-acre fire in Contra Costa County on Saturday and Sunday, the Gilroy Fire Department and California Department of Forestry declared fire season effective Monday morning.

Gilroy firefighters will now respond to vegetation fires with CDF on a first alarm, rather than waiting for a CDF engine to arrive at the fire first, said GFD Operations Chief Ed Bozzo.

The peak of the fire season generally comes later in the summer, when temperatures are higher and vegetation is drier. Last year’s fire hot spot, the area around Uvas Creek in South Gilroy, is drying out slowly, but water is still flowing in the creek bed.

“It’s always a problem for us when everything dries out and the grasses are quite a bit taller out there, so it will be a problem when those are dried out,” Bozzo said.

Last year, firefighters responded to more than a dozen fires in the area south of Gilroy High School, and many of them – including four on Sept. 18 – were ruled arson, although no suspects were arrested.

To prepare for the upcoming fire season, CDF stations in Gilroy and Morgan Hill have been staffed around-the-clock since May 23. The Santa Clara Unit hires and trains seasonal firefighters each year for the additional staffing, who will be on hand during the summer and hot-weather fall months.

Ken Kehmna, new battalion chief for Santa Clara County Fire Department’s Morgan Hill operations, said recently the department always plans for the worst.

“In my 20 years of experience, every year we say could be the worst, every year is fraught with the same amount of potential,” he said. “Whether those factors will line up and the worst come true, nobody knows, but we certainly prepare as if it will. One thing I do know for sure is that the late rains brought tall grass, and a lot of it. The potential is there for problems.”

Firefighters are asking people, especially those living in rural or hillside areas, to clear flammable vegetation around structures to a minimum of 30 feet.

Property owners in the hills west of Gilroy and Morgan Hill will be subject to CDF inspections starting this month. Homeowners must remove all brush and flammable vegetation within 100 feet around their homes – an increase from the previous 30-foot requirement – and all vegetation within 30 feet must be green and well-maintained. Inspectors will be looking at 800 homes, barns, garages and shops for the proper irrigated space, clean roofs and gutters, and roofs of structures free of any dead overhanging branches. Inspectors will first issue a warning if a homeowner is not in compliance, and if the area is not cleared within 14 days, they may issue a citation, which costs $100 for a first offense and $500 for a second offense.

CDF Battalion Chief Derek Witmer said the agency has not yet cited any property owners for violations, but has focused mostly on education. A fire prevention specialist hosted road-side “checkpoints” last month in unincorporated areas of the county to hand out fire safety information to residents of wildland areas.

Property owners within city limits have been asked to keep their homes or vacant lots clear of hazardous fire fuel, as well. Firefighters have spent the past month noting and visiting homes with potentially problematic weeds or vegetation, and asking them to clear a 30-foot space.

“It’s been very good, people in Gilroy are pretty used to it. We’ve been doing a weed abatement program here for years,” Bozzo said.

For more information on fire prevention, visit

Fire prevention tips

– Homes should be clear of flammable vegetation to a minimum of 30 feet, but preferably 100 feet

– Tree limbs should not come within 10 feet of any chimney or stovepipe

– Clear pine needles and leaves from roofs, eaves and gutters

– Store firewood and other combustible materials away from the house

– Cover chimneys with a half-inch wire mesh screen

– Mow grass before 10am, before it’s dry

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