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Fire safety more than a cause for Mariposa woman

MARIPOSA -- One of Mariposa's charms is its woodsy nature. But the lush, overgrown look that's typical of a mountain county can be a mixed blessing, particularly in times of drought when things that are normally green turn brown.

Jan Hamilton has been a Mariposa resident since 1990; her family owns a ranch which was purchased in 1940. However, the rural setting is not without its risks.

The Oliver fire which has been burning over parts of Mariposa County recently worries Hamilton. If the wind were to blow just right, the fire could come over a couple of ridges and endanger her home. Smoky clues to the fire's fury are everywhere.

For Hamilton, a retired Realtor who moved to Mariposa from Pleasanton, fire safety has been a near and dear cause. She heads the Mariposa County Fire Safe Council, a group that works on several fronts to make the community safer from its greatest peril, wildland fires.

Keeping Mariposa properties safe from fire is an ongoing struggle. The Madera-Mariposa-Merced Unit of Cal Fire is in the midst of its annual fire hazard reduction inspection program. Firefighters say the most important preventive step homeowners can take is to clear flammable vegetation at least 100 feet from all structures, Chief Mikel Martin said.

There are about 23,000 homes involved in Mariposa County, according to Karen A. Guillemin, Cal Fire fire prevention specialist. Fifteen of the 21 communities listed in the Federal Register are at-risk from wildfires.

Hamilton said the Fire Safe Council, formed in January 1998, is not a membership organization, per se. It holds monthly general meetings and has a series of smaller committees in some of the 22 communities within Mariposa County. People are active when there's a brush-clearing project in their area.

Hamilton praises Kimberly Bullock, who functions as the organization's executive director. Bullock excels as a grant writer and the council's success is a combination of her expertise and the citizens' involvement themselves, Hamilton said.

Earlier this month, the Mariposa County Board of Supervisors approved $159,048 in federal Title III funds for the Fire Safe Council to use for the next three fiscal years. This money is used in conjunction with a $99,970 grant from the Sierra Nevada Conservancy and a $117,450 grant available this fall from the U.S. Forest Service.

The council owns a brush chipper and contracts crews to use it to reduce accumulated brush and debris, Hamilton said. Cal Fire determined since the Fire Safe Council was formed in 1998, violations of Public Resources Codes mandating minimum clearance around homes have dropped 31 percent in Mariposa County.

The group partnered with the Bureau of Land Management in 2003-2005 to construct about five miles of shaded fuel break on a ridge above Greeley Hill and collaborated with the U.S. Forest Service in 2005-2006 to construct about 1½ miles of shaded fuel break on ridges above Mariposa Pines-Jerseydale areas. Between 2006-2008, the group is in the midst of constructing six miles of shaded fuel break along Stumpfield Mountain and Watt roads.

Hamilton said the Fire Safe Council is similar to Neighborhood Watch, but with a different point of view. California's fire season is fast becoming a year-round affair and there are challenges with a wildland-urban interface.

If the defensible space buffer advocated by Cal Fire is followed correctly, people's houses have a chance of surviving a wildland fire. If firefighters can park their trucks safely on people's property and there's a chance of saving a home from approaching flames, homeowners certainly will benefit, Hamilton said.

Martin said property owners who fail to comply with state regulations can be fined up to $500; this includes removing flammable materials a minimum of 100 feet, clearing all needles and leaves from roofs, eaves and rain gutters, removing tree limbs within 10 feet of chimneys and installing spark arresters on all chain saws, portable equipment, tractors and motorcycles.

Hamilton said Mariposa is a wonderful community and she has great respect for all firefighting agencies. While the Fire Safe Council isn't regulatory in any way, she hopes its mission keeps her surroundings green -- not fireplace black.