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City properties pose fire risk, violate city’s own rules (opinion)

Date:

Submitted by Stephen Van Zee

By now, virtually everyone is aware of the recent wildfire devastation in Lahaina, Maui. A wildfire, allegedly started by downed power lines, spread by dry conditions and high winds to envelope and destroy the entire central area of Lahaina. 

All of Western Maui, including Lahaina, is considered a Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) Area. A WUI Area is the zone of transition between unoccupied land and human development. A WUI area is where wildfires pose the greatest risk to people due to the proximity of flammable vegetation. 

WUI maps prepared by the Silvis Lab, University of Wisconsin – Madison, show that the City of Reno is surrounded by WUI areas. The City of Reno acknowledges its status as a WUI Area, and there have been a number of WUI wildfires, including:

  • 2007, Hawkin Fire, Caughlin Ranch
  • 2011, Caughlin Ranch Fire
  • 2012, Washoe Drive Fire, Pleasant Valley
  • 2017, Earthstone Fire, Sparks
  • 2020, Poeville Fire, Peavine Mountain
  • 2020, Pinehaven Fire, Caughlin Ranch
  • 2021, Garson Fire, Boomtown
  • 2022, Boomtown Fire, Boomtown
  • 2022, Joy Lake Fire, Reno

Reno Fire Department Chief Dave Cochran said, “Wildfire is just a natural part of the landscape these days, and it’s more like when, not if.” 

The City of Reno’s website discusses wildfire risk in the Wildland Urban Interface. The City identifies common causes of wildfires and provides links to additional resources for information on protecting your home and creating defensible space. 

The City states, “…it becomes increasingly important that we work together to keep our homes, our subdivisions, and our communities safe.” The City also states, “Protecting homes from the threat of wildfires is a priority in Reno [emphasis added].” 

Therefore, it would seem that the City of Reno has a firm commitment to mitigating wildfire risk. So why is the City of Reno turning a deaf ear to continual property owner complaints, and ignoring its legal and contractual responsibilities for wildfire mitigation tasks on City-owned property?

The City of Reno is responsible for maintaining the landscape in nine Landscape Maintenance Districts (LMDs) located in Northwest Reno and Stead. All LMDs are comprised of city-owned property. 

The City executed a contract effective September 30, 2022, with Reliance Grounds Management to perform all landscape maintenance activities for the LMDs. Part of the contract identifies the landscape maintenance standards (tasks) applicable to the LMDs and states, “The following maintenance standards, adopted by the City of Reno Parks Division, shall apply to all public rights of way in approved landscape maintenance districts.”

One task that is applicable to four of the nine LMDs, including the Northgate 19/La Salle Heights Landscape Maintenance District, where I reside, is identified as “Fire Breaks” specifically to mitigate wildfire risks. The “Fire Breaks” task shall be performed as needed, year-round, to include a “6 foot clear zone adjacent to residential wood and see-through fences… Remove all vegetation more than 6 inches high. Weedeat/spray cheatgrass as needed.”

The First Street Foundation Wildfire Model summarizes the fire risk for the Northgate 19/La Salle Heights Landscape Maintenance District as “severe.” 

The “Fire Breaks” task is specific and clear. The City of Reno Department of Parks and Recreation, City Manager’s office, and City Council have been notified continually that Reliance Grounds Management has failed to comply with the contract requirement. The photographs below reflect the current non-compliant conditions in the Northgate 19/La Salle Heights Landscape Maintenance District.

This is not a matter of insufficient City staffing or lack of funding. The cost of the City’s contract with Reliance Grounds Management is fully paid by residential property owners within the LMDs. The only “cost” to the City is to serve its constituents by holding Reliance Grounds Management accountable to specific contract requirements.

The City’s failure to hold Reliance Grounds Management to contract terms is a breach of fiduciary duty to the property owners who pay the cost of Reliance Grounds Management’s contract.

Whatever the reason, the Department of Parks and Recreation cannot or will not enforce the terms of its contract with Reliance Grounds Management. Moreover, the City Manager has not held the Department of Parks and Recreation accountable, and likewise, the Reno City Council has not held the City Manager accountable. 

As a result, the City of Reno is failing its constituents by knowingly, willingly, and needlessly subjecting residents to increased wildfire risk. The City is gambling with residents’ lives and property, hoping that Reno will not become another Lahaina.


Stephen Van Zee
Stephen Van Zee

Stephen Van Zee is a City of Reno property owner/resident within the boundaries of Ward 5 and the Northgate 19/La Salle Heights Landscape Maintenance District. He is retired from a career as a Senior Management Auditor with the California State Controller’s Office.

Sources

  1. Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization (2014), Western Maui Community Wildfire Protection Plan
  2. “What is the WUI,” U.S. Fire Administration, August 21, 2023, https://www.usfa.fema.gov/wui/what-is-the-wui.html
  3. V.C. Radeloff, et al., The wildland-urban interface in the United States, Ecological Applications, Ecological Society of America, June 1, 2005, pages 799-805
  4. Ashley Grams, “Nevada homes have new wildfire risk rating,” KOLO-TV, May 17, 2022, https://www.kolotv.com/2022/05/18/nevada-homes-have-new-wildfire-risk-rating/
  5. “Wildfires and Living in the Wildland Urban Interface,” Protecting Your Home, City of Reno, August 21, 2023, https://www.reno.gov/government/departments/fire-department/fire-prevention/wildfires-and-living-in-the-wildland-urban-interface
  6. “Wildfires – Defensible Space,” Emergency Preparedness, City of Reno, August 21, 2023, https://www.reno.gov/community/emergency-preparedness/wildfires-defensible-space
  7. Reno Administrative Code Sections 12.28.920 (2) and 12.28.945 (d)
  8. Risk Factor, First Street Foundation, www.riskfactor.com
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