Fire officials: Drought, late rains mean fire hazards in Merced County

As fire officials promise a crackdown, dry grass covers a property on R Street in Merced Friday.
As fire officials promise a crackdown, dry grass covers a property on R Street in Merced Friday. bahbeck@mercedsunstar.com

Fire officials are stressing that the rain that came in late April and early May might compound the fire hazard posed by overgrown weeds.

Precipitation coming so late in the season can cause the grasses to grow quickly, officials said, and the coming heat will turn tall, green stalks into dry tinder in no time.

“It is an issue for all of California,” said Tracy Staiger, city fire inspector.

To combat what could be a difficult season, Merced City Fire and Cal Fire have decided to get the weed abatement, message out loud and clear.

Merced City Fire plans to send 2,597 notices Tuesday, a last heads-up before firefighters can write administrative tickets, Staiger said.

Generally, fire officials require property owners to trim vegetation at least one foot away from the fence line. Dry or dead grass must be trimmed to no taller than 2 inches. Piles of trash or debris are also considered a hazard.

Overgrown weeds also block the view of drivers, block sidewalks and can clog drains, Staiger said.

Over the past few years, with fewer dollars in each budget, the city and Merced County have switched from conducting abatement and trying to collect money for the services on the back end. Each jurisdiction uses an administrative fine process.

In Merced, the fines range from $100 to $300 and can be imposed daily.

If a home or property continues to be a nuisance despite repeated fines, the agencies can continue the abatement and put a lien on the property to collect the costs.

Merced County Fire Marshal Hank Moore said about 1,200 postcards have been mailed to unincorporated properties that were fined in the past. The cards are a warning to property owners they have until May 18 to trim vegetation before Cal Fire begins its weed abatement inspections.

“We want to do the public education; we don’t want to turn it into a weed abatement case,” he said. “We want to be able to have everybody in a proactive state of mind.”

Overgrowth can be a hazard for more than just farmland, Moore said, as homes left unattended can acquire overgrown, dry lawns. He warned property owners to cut tall, green grasses, as they will dry quickly during the hot summer.

Property owners who live out of town tend to be the most common offenders, he said. But things have improved. The roughly 385 properties that received fines last year was one-quarter of the number from four years earlier.

“We have a lot of work to do but it’s gotten better,” he said. “We don’t want to go backwards.”

Weeds aren’t the only potential fire hazards getting attention because of the drought. The Merced City Council moved forward with a new fireworks ordinance in April that allows a $1,000 administrative fine for using illegal fireworks misusing the Safe & Sane fireworks.

Some members of the council disagreed with the severity of the ordinance, but it moved forward because of the potential of fireworks to ignite a blaze during a drought year. The ordinance needs a second vote to become law.

“It’s going to be a tinderbox all summer long,” Mayor Stan Thurston said in April.