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Fire Hazard Reduction Guidelines

Many factors combine to create a fire hazard on any specific property. It is difficult to single out a specific vegetation species or configuration to declare it either fire hazardous or completely fire safe in all situations. The Fire Department has developed guidelines conforming to State Law and national fire protection standards which address most situations found on private property within El Cerrito. Please read these guidelines along with the accompanying glossary. If you are still unsure of how to proceed, please call the Fire Department and we will work with you to develop a fire hazard reduction plan for your property.

A. Hazard Zones
Portions of the City of El Cerrito lie adjacent or near to large wildland areas containing steep slopes and naturally growing trees, brush and grasses. Every year under certain critical weather conditions, the neighborhoods near these wildland areas are at heightened risk of seasonal wildfire sweeping into the city and burning homes. These areas at heightened risk of wildfire have been designated as Very High Fire Hazard Severity (VHFHS) zones. The rest of the City faces a lesser risk of wildfire.

Fire hazard reduction measures common to the entire City are required on both vacant and developed lots:

    1. Property owners must ensure that all vegetation, native or non-native, shall be maintained so as not to constitute a fire hazard.

    2. Property owners must maintain their property either by ornamental landscaping or by establishing a fuel break along the property line and adjacent to structures. For properties within the VHFHS zones, there are additional requirements for firebreaks within 30 feet of structures and fuel breaks from 30 to 100 feet.

    3. Property owners are responsible for clearance and maintenance of their own property only. Property owners will be required, however, to create fuel breaks on their property to protect neighboring structures. Dimensions of fuel breaks will depend on the proximity of neighboring structures and on whether the properties are within VHFHS zones.

    4. All brush, weeds, grass, and fire hazardous vegetation within 10 feet of any usable road surface, public way or combustible fence shall be maintained in a non-hazardous condition with a fuel break.

    5. Property owners must maintain their property free from all nuisances, including debris, garbage, rubbish and trash, hazardous materials, junk and noxious growth.

B. Ornamental Landscaping
Ornamental landscaping is encouraged throughout the City of El Cerrito to enhance fire safety. Ornamental landscaping consists of decorative plants growing within a tended garden or yard which are well-watered, maintained and located to provide aesthetic decoration and functional utility, such as privacy screening, shade, weed suppression and erosion control.
Within the VHFHS zones, ornamental landscaping in the 30 foot firebreak adjacent to structures must meet the following requirements: 
    6. Ornamental landscaping shall be maintained free of dead wood and litter, and trimmed of small twigs and branches at least two (2) feet or 1/3 of their height from the ground, whichever is less.

    7. Ornamental landscaping must be healthy, pruned, adequately irrigated and regularly maintained so that plants and the area beneath them are free from dead or dying material.

    8. Single specimen trees must be trimmed and maintained.

    9. Ground cover may be used as part of ornamental landscaping provided it is kept green, free of dead wood and litter, and at a height so that they do not form a means of rapidly transmitting fire from native growth (located outside the firebreak) to any building or structure.

C. Vegetation Management Standards
Vegetation management standards exist for the entire City, including areas designated as VHFHS zones. Refer to the glossary (Section III) for a definition of terms used in these standards.

10. Properties within VHFHS zones:

    a. Firebreaks must be created and maintained in areas within 30 feet of any occupied dwelling.
    b. Fuel Breaks must be created and maintained in areas extending from 30 to 100 feet surrounding any structure.
    c. Fuel Breaks must be created and maintained on vacant lots 30 feet wide along the property line and 100 feet from neighboring structures.

11. Properties outside VHFHS zones:
    a. Fuel Breaks must be created and maintained in areas within 30 feet of any structure.
    b. Fuel Breaks must be created and maintained on vacant lots to be 10 feet wide along the property line.

12. Vegetation Management Standards for Firebreaks:
    a. All flammable vegetation or combustible growth must be removed and cleared away, thereby eliminating fire hazardous vegetation fuels which can rapidly transmit fire.
    b. Adequately irrigated and maintained ornamental landscaping is not flammable vegetation or combustible growth, and is encouraged within a firebreak.
    c. Trees, shrubs, bushes or other vegetation adjacent to or overhanging any structure shall be maintained free of dead limbs and other combustible matter such as vines and loose papery bark. On mature trees, limbs should be removed up to 10' above the ground. Smaller trees should be limbed to 1/3rd of their height up to 6' above the ground, but in no case less than 18 inches from the ground.
    d. Trees shall be maintained so that no portion is closer than 10 feet from any chimney opening.
    e. All roof surfaces shall be maintained free of substantial accumulations of needles, twigs, and any other combustible matter.
    f. All cut vegetation and debris must be disposed of either by hauling and dumping in a lawful manner, or by chipping and dispersing over the property in a manner and to a height which will not constitute a fire hazard.
    g. Chipped materials which are spread on the ground shall be of a size no greater than 1 inch by 1 inch by 3 inches.

13. Vegetation Management Standards for Fuel Breaks:
    a. Maintain ornamental landscaping in yards.
    b. All fire hazardous vegetation with the exception of weeds and grass shall be cleared and maintained to a height no greater than 18 inches above the ground.
    c. All weeds and grass shall be cleared and maintained at a height no greater than 6 inches above the ground.
    d. Remove from trees all vines, loose papery bark and dead branches.
    e. All cut vegetation and debris must be disposed of either by hauling and dumping in a lawful manner, or by chipping and dispersing over the property in a manner and to a height which will not constitute a fire hazard.
    f. Chipped materials which are spread on the ground shall be of a size no greater than 1 inch by 1 inch by 3 inches.

14. Additional Considerations for Vegetation Management:
    a. The Fire Hazard Abatement Program is intended to promote community fire safety by reducing the combustible vegetation fuel mass on private properties. Clearing vegetation by heavy construction methods, such as grading, discing, trenching or dozing shall require special permits from the City. Disposal by burning is not permitted.
    b. Any parcel where slope stability will be threatened by removal of plants may be exempt from treatment requirements or subject to alternate treatments. The property owner must submit a report documenting the probability of slope failure due to vegetation removal, prepared by a licensed civil, geotechnical, or soils engineer. The report shall propose alternative treatment methods to address fire hazards. The report will be reviewed by city staff. Review and acceptance by the City of alternative treatment will supersede other requirements.
    c. Any parcel or lot which includes plant or animal species that are rare, endangered or of special concern may qualify for alternative plant treatment and spacing requirements. The property owner must submit a report from a qualified resource biologist or landscape architect describing the species, actions required to preserve its environmental value, and proposed alternative measures to address fire hazards. The report will be reviewed by the City. Review and acceptance by the City of alternative treatment will supersede other requirements.

D. Planting Considerations
  • Any plant will burn if the conditions are right. Some plants are considered to be extremely flammable while other plants are considered to have some resistance to fire. Verifiable tests of fire exposure characteristics for all specific ornamental landscaping plants is not available.
  • The best available plant information is contained in a publication available from EBMUD entitled "Firescape: Landscaping to Reduce Fire Hazard". Download the publication from http://ebmud.com
  • A list of plants with some fire-resistance and plants considered highly flammable is also available from the Fire Department.
  • At the base of trees and shrubs, replace flammable vegetation with bark, mulch, rock, gravel or low-growing or more fire-resistant groundcovers. This cover reduces the fire danger and minimizes weeds. Avoid placing medium-sized shrubs beneath trees or taller shrubs.
  • By breaking up the available fuel mass in ornamental landscaping, a fire will be kept at lower intensity, flame lengths will be shorter and fire will be less likely to form a continuous line or front.

E. Structural Fire Safety
The City's roofing and vegetation management standards are designed to reduce the amount of airborne burning material, limiting fire spread. Once a fire starts, it is often accelerated by wind-borne burning material. Burning embers or brands are the main source of fire spread in mixed urban-wildland areas. The roof of a house is most vulnerable to this type of ignition. Spark arresters with a maximum of 1/2" openings in the mesh are required over the outlet of every chimney. Class A is the top rating for fire resistive roofing, followed by Classes B and C. The City of El Cerrito requires that all roofing be Class B or better, and wood shake shingle roofing materials are prohibited in new construction or replacement of more than 50 % of the roof.


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