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Experts urge residents to protect homes during fire season

Brush fires common, but protection is simple, experts say

Wildfire season is in full force, with triple-digit temperatures drying out vulnerable wild grass and home landscaping.

At least three brush fires threatened homes in and near Pleasanton in July -- one 30-acre, three-alarm blaze that spread east of I-680, one two-acre fire in Sunol and a two-acre fire near the Kottinger Ranch neighborhood, where flames spread up to backyard fences.

Years of drought have left Pleasanton's hills and valleys dry and crispy. This week alone, low humidity and dry winds are even making conditions slightly worse, National Weather Service meteorologist Larry Smith said.

All that means one thing: A recipe for fire. In 2014, Livermore-Pleasanton firefighters responded to 88 brush fires through November, and as of July, firefighters have responded to 75 fires.

"The data indicates that we are on a trend for significantly more incidents this year than last," said Joe Testa, acting deputy chief of operations.

City water restrictions mean Pleasanton residents can only water their landscaping twice a week, so dousing the lawn with water isn't an option.

Tri-Valley municipal organizations have made moves to help reduce the area's risk. The Dublin San Ramon Services District is offering free recycled water to Pleasanton, Dublin and San Ramon residents for watering lawns, and the Pleasanton City Council recently banned smoking in public parks -- partially due to the fire risk.

But homeowners don't have to sit around and hope for the best. They can take action now to protect their homes before a fire starts, said Thomas Welle, senior project manager at the National Fire Protection Association, which creates fire safety building standards for municipal governments.

"Unfortunately, people don't really start taking steps," he said, "until there is smoke in the air."

Kottinger Ranch, where one of the July fires occurred, regularly uses weed whackers and lawn mowers to keep wild grass short, said homeowners association president Douglas Basch.

"It gets it down and gets rid of the fuel source," he said. "There's basically nothing to burn."

Fire officials noted efforts in the area to keep grass short prevented that fire from spreading to homeowners' backyards and houses. Most of the suggestions are as simple as keeping grass short and your property clean, Welle said.

He said to remove all dry vegetation, such as dead leaves, from gutters, under porches and on lawns. By taking the time to rake dead leaves, you're eliminating the kindling that could spread a fire to your home.

He said it's important for residents to learn about their specific risks. City and county municipalities often have fire mitigation specialists who can survey a home and identify fire hazards that aren't immediately obvious, such as a vent that could let smoldering embers into an attic.

"What folks don't understand is it's usually not a wall of fire that's going to burn your house down," he said.

More often, it's the steady fall of burning embers that ignite a home. Often, embers catch debris or flammable material around a home catch on fire, which spreads the blaze to a home.

All flammable material, including leaves, should be removed or cleared away at least 30 feet from homes, Welle said. Wood piles, cars not inside garages and wooden deck furniture should be moved. Even cushions on deck chairs could cause a problem.

Fences should be inspected to make sure they're safe for fire season. If a home is surrounded by a wooden fence, homeowners should make sure it doesn't touch the house. If it does, Welle recommends removing a small section of the fence where it touches the house and replacing that area with non-flammable fencing, such as metal.

Vegetation near a home should be cut strategically, and plants should be kept at least five feet away from a home. Bushes, for example, should be spread out in clumps, not rows. Succulents and other drought-resistant landscaping are ideal, but even they will burn if dry enough, he said.

Even wood mulch shouldn't be used within five feet of a home, he said.

Even if they don't have an expert check out the situation, he emphasized that residents should educate themselves about wildfire risks.

"The earlier they can do that, the better," he said.

More information about protecting a home from brush fires can be found at www.firewise.org and www.readyforwildfire.org.

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