FireWatch

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Last Wednesday, the Association hosted a show and tell session introducing their FireWatch project to about 75 members in attendance. Depending on what the Association, Association members, and the RSF Fire Department do with this information, it has the potential to significantly increase wildfire risk enforcement efforts.

At the meeting Association employee Caitlin Kreutz and RSF fire prevention specialist Brandon Closs laid the groundwork by describing California law and the RSF fire protection district’s regulations. It was a bit of an eye opener.

The Association provided free food and drinks.

What is FireWatch?

The Association has hired a startup company called FireWatch to produce multi-spectral imaging of our properties from aerial fly bys every summer. We are their first customer. The company provides a series of images for each member parcel which shows 50′ and 100′ defensible spaces around the property. Four such images are provided for each property, each one processed in a different way. For instance, one of the images is taken in infrared light which can highlight dead and dying vegetation.

Extracting actionable information from these images requires cross referencing scene analysis across different images while remembering what each color represents in each image. The directions for how to understand these four images is given here.

During the Wednesday night FireWatch meeting, Kreutz gave us a tutorial on how to do this scene analysis. My take is that this is complex. It isn’t clear to me how much utility individual homeowners will get from these maps over and above what they can get from walking their own property. While few of us are landscaping experts, we can generally tell if something is dead when we are standing right next to it. Whereas combining information from four separate images and remembering which color means what on each image is not for the faint of heart. Update: I’ve been reminded that one easy to use aspect of the FireWatch maps will be the drawn in defensible space zones around dwellings.

The organization that will definitely benefit from FireWatch is the Fire Department.

RSF Fire Regulations

I believe it was Kreutz that stated during the meeting that current fire regulations mandate a zero combustible zone of 5′ from any dwelling and emphasized that even mulch is not allowed. Here is a link the current RSF Fire regulations, and the informative diagram found on page 28:

RSF Fire Department’s landscaping regulation

This regulation mandates gravel or other hardscape to five feet from dwellings, nothing taller than 18 inches fifty feet away and trees that must have 10′ crown separation thereafter.

If Rancho houses all adhered to this, we’d almost look like Phoenix, AZ. This is a prescription for some pretty brutal landscaping. In Rancho, vegetation is routinely abutted to structures to soften their appearance. It is almost landscaping 101.

Update: The above referenced fire code (2020-01) applies only to new construction. Existing dwellings must only adhere to 2019-02 (link here) which says no mulch within 12″ of dwellings, no dead leaves, needles, etc. 0-5 feet. Pages 5 to 7 of that document list other requirements, but they aren’t as restrictive as above.

Just for fun, I decided to take some pictures of Association owned buildings. I lost track of how many deviations from these regulations Association buildings had. To be clear, these RSF Fire regulations pertain to dwellings “designed primarily for human habitation”, so commercial buildings like the Association offices and golf club are not required to follow these rules. Nonetheless, it shows that even commercial buildings use landscaping to enhance aesthetics, and fully complying with the fire regulations would leave properties looking quite stark. See the pictures I took at the end of this article.

Fire Department Regulations and FireWatch

If you take RSF fire prevention specialist Closs at his word when he said during the meeting that the fire department will now “use these new FireWatch maps to demand compliance from Association members”, and that they will be “thoroughly enforcing [fire department] rules”, it begins to sound a bit chilling. As per Closs, this is a change from current practice since heretofore they haven’t been allowed to step onto private property to do a fire survey.

This is a good place to note that the RSF Fire Protection District regulation I referenced above (link again), on page 4 states that failure to comply with these regulations will be punishable by “a fine not exceeding $1,000.00 or by imprisonment in County Jail not exceeding six (6) months, or both”.

Isn’t Mitigating Fire Risk A Good Thing?

Of course it is. The concern I have is how will this enforcement be done. As we drive around Rancho, we can see properties that are seemingly abandoned with zero irrigation. There’s a couple of prominent ones in the village. I’ve heard stories of large amounts of dead vegetation (trimmings) that are left on the ground for months that have been reported to the fire department with no action. I am left wondering why the fire department hasn’t been able to force compliance on these kinds of egregious properties?

In the Q&A sessions, some members complained about their neighbors that had large amounts of dead vegetation. You don’t need multi-spectral image analysis for these obvious cases. Presumably these neighbors have already complained to the Association and/or fire department. Yet the problem properties persist.

It all comes down to how the Fire Department’s regulations will be enforced. If Closs is correct and the fire department will now be “thoroughly enforcing [fire department] rules” using FireWatch as a new tool in their tool chest, I am worried that well irrigated nice landscaping that Rancho is known for will be a thing of the past.

Update: The RSF Fire Department responds:

The Fire District will not and cannot use Fire Watch maps to enforce violations of Ordinance 2019-02; this was never intended as an enforcement tool. We have to visually verify a violation before a violation notice can be sent for corrective actions to be taken. The maps could be of benefit to the Fire District to identify open space areas of concern for fuel mitigation projects; however, the same aerial imagery (absent the filters) is available on Google maps.

These maps are excellent tools for homeowners as it does identify the proper defensible space zones around their home and relative health of the vegetation.

Seller Beware

A new California law went into effect a month ago on July 1st. When selling your home, you must now certify that your home complies with “laws pertaining to state law defensible spaces or local vegetation management ordinances”. I’m not a lawyer or even a real estate agent, but I believe that means you must certify that you comply with RSF Fire’s stringent regulations when you sell your home. Are there any real estate agents out there who could tell me how this works in practice?

Update: Here is the new form sellers must fill in. Section 4 is the interesting one. Seems that sellers need to obtain a certificate of compliance from the fire department. How hard will it be to get one? Further update: The fire department has no current certificate program, so for now, this form will be used only for disclosure. Also, the requirements are from the less restrictive 2019-02 regulations (pages 5 through 7).

The Association has this and other pertinent information about wildfire mitigation laws on the FireWatch series of pages located here.

Association Members Speak

During the Q&A session, there were several people who expressed concern about their neighbor’s vegetative fire hazards.

In addition, two people tried to push back against this program calling it “invasive” and an “invasion of privacy”. Kreutz rather forcefully dismissed these concerns stating that this is no different from Google Earth. I think she meant the method of acquiring the data was no different from how Google does it, because the imaging data certainly is different. These multi spectral images would not exist absent the Association paying for them to be produced.

Roll Out

Only 200 Association members will be given their FireWatch images starting on Monday August 2nd to gauge how much help members require with their images. More members will get images two weeks following and hopefully all members will get their images by the fall.

As I said, how this Association program works in practice depends on how the Association, its members and the Fire Department uses it.

By the way, as far as I can tell, the specific software, algorithms and analysis that FireWatch provides hasn’t been put through a scientific review process. This is, afterall, a new product that a startup company is providing that has no official certifications. Having said that, optical remote sensing of vegetation is something that is done all the time. I asked FireWatch for published papers on their analysis and they provided me with two papers related to to the work they do, available here and here.

Buildings like the Association’s golf club often have vegetation abutting the building to soften the appearance.
Association offices showing trees that wouldn’t be allowed if they were planted near a house.
Association offices roof gutter. Ummm…