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Confused about the fire department’s brush inspection fee? Here’s what it’s for

Brush fire in the Chevy Chase area of Glendale
Since the 1990s, the Glendale Fire Department has inspected and limited the foliage around homes in neighborhoods with a high fire risk to prevent more damage from brush fires, such as this one in the Chevy Chase area. Last year, the city began charging a fee for what’s known as the brush-management program, causing confusion among some residents.
(Raul Roa / Glendale News-Press)

Every first week of the month for the past three months, fire prevention inspector Jeremy Cawn has been inundated with hundreds of calls from Glendale residents in high-fire risk zones concerning bills they received for inspection of the brush near their homes and, in some cases, letters alerting them that they failed the inspection.

Glendale’s vegetation management program — intended to keep homes safe during a wildfire by limiting brush around them — has been in effect since the early 1990s.

However, it wasn’t until last year that county officials began collecting a $15 fee for the initial inspection of all homes in high-fire risk areas, according to Cawn. Some of the more than 8,500 people billed this year are still adjusting to the change, he added.

“We did not charge that to overwhelmingly make a profit, that’s for sure,” Fire Marshal Jeffrey Ragusa said. “The goal is to offset the cost of the program.”

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“I don’t think anybody, especially after the last two years, doubts that there’s a very real risk of wildfires,” Cawn added. “If you take care of the vegetation around your house … you can really reduce the risk of your house being damaged or destroyed during a wildfire.”

At the same time that city officials approved the fee, Glendale’s fire department restructured the program so that it was handled by a single department and headed by a dedicated inspector, Ragusa said.

Money collected is used to hold community-outreach events and commission a third-party to manage a software database that monitors high-fire areas.

Ragusa described it as an overall “more thorough, more efficient” program now.

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Previously, local fire stations handled inspected batches of homes located in the high-fire risk areas, which represent more than two-thirds of all the homes in the city, Ragusa said. That made the inspections less uniform and harder for residents to contact the person who evaluated their property, he added.

Now, Cawn conducts all of the initial inspections himself with the help of a tablet. From May to July, Cawn canvassed homes for about six hours a day, five days a week.

Almost all of the initial inspections can be done from the street, Cawn said. If he can’t conduct a street inspection, he’ll knock on a door and ask for access to the property to send a follow-up letter. He’s looking for possible fire threats such as unusually tall grass or excessive vegetation on a hillside, which could feed a fire or help ignite a new one if an ember lands there.

According to Cawn, it’s important to keep a significant area around structures trimmed and uncluttered.

Homes that are out of compliance receive a 30-day notice to make specified changes. Those who fail to do so are given another 15 days. After that, the fire-prevention department can refer the case to the city attorney’s office, which can slap residents with fees or obtain a warrant to send contractors to fix the problem and bill the homeowner.

About 80% of homes in the canvassed areas passed the first inspection. That figure climbed to 85% on the second inspection, Cawn said.

Notices alerting residents they failed their first inspection went out in early June. The first wave of bills for the initial inspection and follow-up notices went out in early July. A second wave of inspection bills went out this month.

After each batch of letters, Cawn said his department received a spike in calls — either from people unsure why they were being billed, how to comply or to alert the department they had complied with the inspection requests.

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A third wave of inspection bills is set to go out early next month, and Cawn said he expects another spike in calls at that time.

Glendale City Council members took note of the confusion among some residents, and asked Glendale Fire Chief Silvio Lanzas to give a presentation about the program during a meeting last week.

Every year for the past three years, a more devastating fire has outpaced the year prior, which has never happened before, according to Lanzas.

Through the collaboration of residents and the fire department, “We are better able to stay prepared and help keep our city, its residents, visitors and our firefighters safe during a brush fire,” Lanza said.

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