Fire Safe Marin was one of the nation’s first fire safe councils. Today, there are fire safe councils in every state, and a California Fire Safe Council based in Sacramento.
The Oakland-Berkeley Hills “Tunnel” Fire in October 1991 was a wake-up call to many in Marin who recognized a similar danger in their own backyards. The fire ultimately killed 25 people, injured 150, and burned 1,520 acres, 2,843 single-family dwellings, and 437 apartment and condominium units. The economic loss was estimated to be $1.5 billion (in 1991 dollars). Soon after this event, the Marin County Board of Supervisors issued a resolution to create a fire safety council. Supervisor Hal Brown became the Chairman of Fire Safe Marin and served in this capacity until his passing in 2012. The Marin County Fire Marshal began to examine a similar group in San Mateo, which was involved in both public education and vegetation treatment.
Meanwhile, Marin Municipal Water District was also starting a community fire prevention organization. It wasn’t long before the common ground between fire departments and natural resource agencies in Marin led to a formal partnership. These two efforts converged in 1992, and the group called itself “Fire Safe Marin.”
By January 1993, Fire Safe Marin meetings, open to the general public, were being held at the Kentfield Fire District. The group relocated to meet in the offices of the Marin Conservation Corps for several years, and eventually established an independent office at the Marin Nexus Volunteer Center in San Rafael. Note that since 2020, the group meets virtually.
From the beginning, it was clear that fire safety efforts needed to involve both the public and private sectors. PG&E, consulting firms, and several insurance companies soon became involved. The County Board of Supervisors, Marin Community Foundation, Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co., and PG&E provided financial support which sustained the organization. The Marin Conservation Corps developed specialized programs for fire hazard reduction and was an important partner in many Fire Safe Marin projects.
Chipper Day was organized so residents could easily dispose of vegetation debris from around their homes. Fire inspectors were trained to assess vegetation fire hazards during routine property inspections. Training in fire-safe landscaping and construction was conducted for community planners and homeowners. Fire Safe Marin developed education materials, assisted neighborhoods with funding fuel reduction projects, and participated in the Marin Home Show, as well as several wildfire conferences.
Then, the Vision Fire occurred on Inverness Ridge in 1995. Like the Oakland Hills Fire, it was accelerated by the hot, dry, high-velocity Santa Ana-type winds characteristic of the region in the fall. The Vision Fire was started by an unextinguished, illegal campfire on state park land and then moved to national park lands and privately owned lands. Finally, it consumed nearly 12,000 acres in Point Reyes National Seashore and 48 homes on Inverness Ridge. This event illustrated once again that fire management needed to be a public-private endeavor conducted cooperatively throughout adjacent wildlands.
In 1996, Fire Safe Marin, found itself developing an endorsement policy when it was called upon to support two pieces of local legislation, Measures A and L. Measure A, was a sales tax increase for management of county parks, open space and agricultural lands, including vegetation programs aimed at fire hazard reduction. Measure L was a per-parcel fee to fund the “Fire Flow” project, an upgrade of the MMWD water system to ensure water resources could be pumped adequately during a fire, and to make the system more resilient to earthquakes. At the time, the system included 850 miles of pipe, 92 of which would be replaced over a fifteen-year period.
The California Fire Plan established a framework for minimizing costs and losses associated with wildland fire. Assets at risk included real estate, as well as cultural, ecological, and recreational assets that could be damaged. This plan emphasized the need for fire safety zones around communities prone to wildland fire.
Then, the National Fire Plan, resulting from the devastating fire season of 2000, and over a decade of increasing losses in the wildland urban interface, made federal funding available to assist communities with wildland fire protection. In 2001, Fire Safe Marin projects began to receive funding from the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management. A cooperative agreement was formed between the National Park Service and Fire safe Marin to establish a fire prevention partnership. Projects in Marin were also funded through the Sacramento Regional Foundation, which administers a wildfire prevention grant program for the Bureau of Land Management.
Fire Safe Marin is a network of many organizations and individuals who work together to reach the common goal of reducing wildland fire hazards and improving fire safety in Marin. Vegetation management to reduce hazardous fuels, water systems for fire suppression, road improvements for emergency access, and public education, continue to be primary endeavors for Fire Safe Marin. New members are always welcome.
There is no archive of Fire Safe Marin projects from 2001-2014. In 2014 FSM developed a new strategic plan and hired a new Executive Coordinator. The organization began to aggressively apply for federal, state and local grants, private grants from partners such as PG&E, and private contributions and donations.
The years 2014 to 2019 were Fire Safe Marin’s most successful years ever. In 2018 and 2019 several new grants were awarded to fund our wildfire prevention projects, bringing the five-year grant funding total to $2,712,173. Our fuel reduction and wildfire prevention efforts span the entire county, from West Marin to Sausalito. They involve thousands of volunteer hours and dozens of state, federal, and local public land management agencies, private homeowner’s associations, businesses, PG&E, and every Marin fire agency.
PG&E was the largest source of grants contributing approximately $850,000 between 2014 and 2020. While most of this support went to fuel management projects including neighborhood chipper days, PG&E also contributed to the wildfire detection camera program. PGE continues to be a strong supporter of FSM through annual grants and participation on our Board of Directors.
In 2019 the CSAA Insurance Group awarded $40,000 to FSM to develop a home hardening education program. The US Forest Service has helped fund the development of neighborhood vegetation management plans. And, the William H. Donner Foundation has generously provided annual support to FSM since 2017.
CAL FIRE provided approximately $475,000 in grant funding from 2015 to 2018. Programs included the new Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) and major fuel reduction projects in Nicasio and neighborhoods throughout Marin. In 2019 Fire Safe Marin was selected by CAL FIRE to receive a new grant award of $993,500 to help fund a $1.3 million project aimed at improving the safety of evacuation routes in seven central Marin communities. The grant provided funding to seven hillside neighborhoods along the eastern slopes of Mt. Tamalpais. In order to improve evacuation routes there, vegetation was reduced along more than 55 miles of roads, improving access and egress, and strategically dispersing fuel reduction over a 3,000-acre geographic area with a long history of wildfires.
The October 2017 Northern California experienced what came to be known as the North Bay Fires. Twenty-one major fires burned at least 245,000 acres. For the first time in many years, residents of Marin were awakened to the reality that our county is also vulnerable to wildfire. Fire Safe Marin was overwhelmed with requests from the public for information about wildfires and support for vegetation management projects. In subsequent years, Northern California experienced many more large wildfires culminating in 2020 with a record-setting year of wildfires in California. By the end of the year, 9,917 fires had burned 4,397,809 acres.
In response to the threat of wildfire, Marin voters passed Measure C in March of 2020. This created the Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority (MWPA), a joint powers agency tasked to develop and implement a comprehensive wildfire prevention and emergency preparedness plan throughout almost all of Marin County. The MWPA mission includes providing expert information and assistance to help the public reduce risk, prevent wildfires, and be prepared for potential disaster. The MWPA provides major financial support to Fire Safe Marin for these community outreach and education efforts. A description of Fire Safe Marin’s MWPA projects can be found here.