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Fire Prep Class Fights Uphill Battle

As fire season nears, officials say complacency permeates community but vow to stay vigilant.

In her ongoing efforts to educate her fellow Mill Valley residents about the danger of wildfires in our community, Katherine Randolph faces a predicament. The longer we go without a major fire disaster here, the more complacent we become and the more susceptible we are to such an event.

"If there's a big fire at some point, we get a lot of attendees, but if we don't, we don't," Randolph said about her regular free "Fire in Mill Valley!" classes, which resume Sunday at the Mill Valley Community Center.

Mill Valley Fire Department Interim Chief Greg Moore, who launched the department's vegetation management strategy 14 years ago, said local residents are missing out on Randolph's two-hour class.

"We have a very difficult time getting word out about this," he said. "There's kind of a belief here that it's never going to happen in this town, and we've had to fight against that for a long time."

Much of Randolph's class centers on the dangerous situation presented by the topography and densely wooded environment that drew so many residents to Mill Valley in the first place. With its hilly terrain of canyon homes connected by a network of thin, winding roads on the steep slopes of Mount Tamalpais, Mill Valley and its surrounding unincorporated neighborhoods are ripe for the same type of devastating wildland fire that destroyed 3,000 homes and killed 25 people in the 1991 Oakland hills blaze, Randolph said.

The class features stirring news footage of the evacuation from the Oakland hills fire.

"You can see how impossible it is for people to get out, and how hysterical people are," Randolph said. "The roads are so narrow, and Mill Valley is denser than Oakland in terms of narrow streets and overgrowth of vegetation."

Mill Valley has been fortunate to go 80 years without a major wildfire. The last one was a 1929 blaze that torched 2,500 acres of Mt. Tam's southern slope and destroyed 117 homes in three days. Between 1859 and 1932, the city was hit with eight major wildland fires. Fire officials estimate the amount of fire fuel on the mountain has tripled from what it was in 1929.

In 2008, Mill Valley adopted wildland urban interface codes, regulating access, water supply and vegetation for most new construction and major remodels. Although new developments must submit vegetation management plans that provide a 30-foot clear perimeter around a house, the thousands of already built homes present the bigger problem, Randolph said.

"We really do live in an unmanaged forest in Mill Valley," Moore said. "If you have a house that is in that forest, you need to take action to create defensible space around your home."

More said his department simply doesn't have the money to do vegetation management right. Sending inspectors door-to-door to monitor and enforce vegetation management is the only way to ensure that each home has defensible space around it, he said.

In a tough economy and a city budget that has been trimmed repeatedly, that's a tough sell.

"Do we wait until after a catastrophic fire to find a way to pay for it?" Randolph asked.

"It goes even deeper than that," Moore said. "We're going to have to change the culture of this community and be willing to trade a sense of privacy for defensible space."

The "Fire in Mill Valley!" class takes place Sunday at 4pm, and will be followed by two classes in September and October and another in November. For more information, go to the city's Web site. Pre-registration is recommended. Call 269-6836 or e-mail fireinmv@comcast.net.

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