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Out near where the pavement ends off Sonoma Mountain Road, Wednesday morning, four sets of hands feed a tangle of branches into an ever-hungry woodchipper. Call it the cutting edge of California's preparation for another fire season. 

It's an entirely free service. And now, easier to access.

Recognizing its importance in reducing fire danger, officials expanded Sonoma County's chipper services this year, making seasonal crews available year round and adding new equipment and employees.

While the program can save as much as $2,000 over renting a chipper and hiring a crew to run it, homeowners seeking county help have to lend a hand....said Steve Mosiurchak, Sonoma County's fire marshal.

"They do the hard work which is creating the piles, they apply on-line, real simple application process, and then it's an automated system, so once the application gets accepted, we show up a couple of weeks later to do the work," Mosiurchak said.

That means attacking what are considered ladder fuels and gathering it all in neat piles of specific dimensions.

"We're not asking to clear cut, we're asking you to limb up and actually cut from the lower end," Mosiurchak said.

Funded by hotel taxes and extra money from the board of supervisors, crews will spend up to two hours, twice a year, on a single property.

County equipment operator Keith Flood said his assignments reveal to him parts of the county he'd otherwise never know and he gets to work outdoors, something he enjoys.

"Everyone is super happy to see us and pretty happy to get their stuff chipped and do their part creating defensible space, that's pretty rewarding and then it's kind of nice seeing a nice clean job at the end of the day," Flood said.

Flood said his work is only one facet of reducing fire danger.

"It's like kind of a wholistic approach to this whole thing, from controlled burns, burn piles, chipping, weed whacking, gutter inspections, community doing their part, so every little bit helps," Flood added.

Most critically, assure a firetruck can safely reach a property during a blaze...meaning no obstacles or overhanging branches. In terms of defensible space, Mosiurchak laid out the fundamentals.

"Try to create an ignition resistant zone around the structure between zero to five feet. We're talking putting down gravel, things that won't burn, doing kind of like a rock garden around the house. And then, as you extend out, reducing the fuels but there's less work you have to do further out."

Defensible space is more than a motto. In the event of an explosive inferno, it can make a real difference when firefighters come close to being overwhelmed, Mosiurchak said.

"The better defensible space you have to the home and the structural hardening that happens with the home, allows the department to determine, 'hey, we can safely stay here and defend these structures,' versus not being able to," Mosiurchak said.

It can also pay dividends, giving firefighters an opportunity to aid less prepared neighbors.

"They may also be able to leave and go defend a structure that doesn't have it," Mosiurchak said.

You can find information and sign up for the program via the county's Permit Sonoma website, or follow this link.


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