February showers bring May weeds.
Prolonged rainfall earlier this year, combined with an extended dry spell and a building triple-digit heat wave, has produced a bumper crop of weeds in the city of Merced and throughout Merced County.
What is aggravating the problem this year, firefighters say, is the large number of abandoned and foreclosed homes, along with housing subdivisions that never got off the ground. Chest-high weeds are posing risks to these vacant residences and keeping firefighters jumping with grass fires.
Division Chief Leonard Franco of the Merced City Fire Department said the problem of weeds is worse than previous years. The housing and economic slowdowns are definitely having a big impact on the weed situation.
"The heat wave makes it that much worse," Franco said, "with foreclosed properties and incomplete subdivisions. The potential (fire damage) is there."
Merced County Fire Marshal Pat Wright said there are a number of large abandoned fields that haven't been farmed for years. He said most, but not all, people are responsive in removing weed hazards quickly when notified by his office.
What complicates the situation, Wright said, is absentee property owners. Notifying offending property owners from out-of-state or in foreign countries becomes a challenge and sometimes he later learns the property has been subsequently sold.
Franco said if grass or dry weeds are more than two inches high, that typically triggers the weed abatement ordinance. The division chief said firefighters generally find weeds from knee-high to chest-high lengths and this presents a greater risk of a fire spreading faster than it might normally.
Tall weeds that catch fire often burn fences and can consume buildings, too. If a fire takes place on a property where a weed abatement notice has been sent, that property owner can be billed for fire suppression costs, which run from $200 to several thousand dollars, Franco said.
So far this year, Merced firefighters have responded to 22 vegetation fires in the city. The city fire department sent out 4,000 notices about a month ago and is following up now with 800 second notices. When firefighters return their survey books from checking around town, Franco expects 1,500 to 1,600 second notices to be sent.
Merced Fire Chief Ken Mitten said the department is trying to push ahead of the curve.
Franco said contractors will be assigned to weed abatement projects next week, with the owners billed for the cost of knocking down the excess growth.
Abatement costs range from $200 to several thousand dollars, depending upon the acreage and time involved.
Wright said this is a busy time of year for his office, which receives 20 to 30 complaints a day from the public calling attention to weed hazards.
Engine companies from the county fire department's 21 stations have surveyed properties within their response areas and will make follow-up inspections.
Between 2,500 and 3,500 weed abatement notices are sent out each year. Once weed abatement "pre-citation" notices are sent to property owners in unincorporated areas, they have 16 days to fix the problem.
A $50 citation can be issued for the first offense, $100 for the second and $250 to third violations within a year's time, Wright explained.
Trying to track down the responsible owners is one of the major roadblocks in enforcing the county's weed abatement ordinance and finding the funds to disc the properties often is difficult, Wright said.
Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2485 or firstname.lastname@example.org.