California’s climate includes dry, windy, and hot weather conditions that can exacerbate wildfires. As wildfires become more frequent in California, local and state fire protection agencies are reexamining their fire prevention codes in an effort to prevent the spread of wildfires throughout communities.
In 2018, the Orange County Fire Authority began enforcing more stringent Defensible Space guidelines in communities adjacent to wildland areas. These guidelines were adapted from residential and forest fire prevention guidelines, and include a combination of vegetation management and fuel modification requirements. Compliance with the guidelines is not optional; an Association’s failure to bring property into alignment with the standards will be fined and could be required to appear before the District Attorney. However, many master-planned communities have struggled to implement the ambiguous guidelines within their Associations’ approved budgets and OCFA’s mandated deadlines.
In late 2018, OCFA notified SAMLARC of seven (7) zones required to comply with Defensible Space guidelines. Over the course of 2019, SAMLARC has worked to align these zones with the guidelines by removing, rehabilitating, and pruning the landscape. While SAMLARC is on schedule to complete clearing work in these zones by the end of 2019, the unanticipated cost of the work is estimated at $659,000. This amount was able to be absorbed into the 2019 Budget. However, it is anticipated that OCFA will continue to expand its inspection efforts in 2020 and future years, issuing additional compliance mandates with short timelines and unknown costs.
The Community Associations of Rancho (CAR) is working alongside OCFA to establish a comprehensive program that addresses the impacts of Defensible Space compliance on Homeowners Associations. CAR is an advisory group comprised of representatives from the seven master-planned communities in Rancho Santa Margarita, including SAMLARC, Dove Canyon, Trabuco Highlands, Rancho Cielo, Walden, and SAMCORP. As a member of CAR, SAMLARC is leading several working groups for this program. SAMLARC Management and Mosaic Landscape Consulting are reviewing the guidelines with OCFA to establish clear and consistent criteria for HOA compliance. SAMLARC Management and FirstService Residential are working with insurance professionals to prevent or respond to the potential of a non-renewal. Additionally, SAMLARC Vice President Marty Groh is working with CAR’s legal counsel, Dan Nordberg, to establish a non-profit, 501(c)(3) Fire Safe Council to create opportunities for grant funding. The success of these initiatives will help SAMLARC to protect the Association’s assets.