Property owners with dense weeds reminiscent of the lush Amazon jungle beware -- leaving that overgrown greenery uncut is a dangerous fire hazard that may also hit you in the wallet.
That's the message city and county fire officials are relaying to the public as they kick off weed abatement inspections. And those who don't take heed could face fines up to $250.
Firefighters with Merced Fire Department began their inspections of all properties within city limits this month, while Cal Fire will begin its inspections on county properties in April.
Firefighters will be going throughout the city and county, searching for properties with overgrown weeds and grasses, in addition to hazardous debris. There's also no shortage of vacant houses and properties owned by out-of-town investors, where overgrown weeds have gone unchecked.
Merced Fire Chief Ken Mitten said this year's heavy rains have contributed to a bumper crop of weeds on many properties, and it's not uncommon to find empty lots and areas covered in verdant expanses of waist-high weeds.
As hotter months approach, however, those tall weeds will invariably turn a dry yellow and brown -- creating the optimum conditions to spark a fire. Mitten said fire officials hope property owners will address their own weed problems long before it gets to that point. "As it gets drier, the danger increases," Mitten said.
Property owners who are not complying with Merced's weed abatement ordinance will receive a notice in the mail within the upcoming weeks. Generally, Mitten said property owners must trim the weeds around buildings and on their properties to at least two inches to comply with the city ordinance.
If the problem isn't addressed within three weeks, a second notice will be sent to the property owner. By May, if the overgrown weeds remain, Mitten said a third notice will be sent to the property owner and a city contractor will trim and remove the weeds.
The costs for the weed abatement, Mitten said, will be charged to the noncompliant owner of the property. "(The costs) depend on the size of the property. We have bills that run anywhere from $150 to $200, to several thousand dollars depending on the size of the property," Mitten said. "It can be very expensive."
In the county areas, those who own properties with an abundance of overgrown weeds or grass above 18 inches will receive a precitation notice, with 16 days to correct the problem. Afterward, a local engine company will reinspect those properties, according to Hank Moore, acting fire marshal of Cal Fire.
Owners who don't comply with the precitation notice will receive another notice to address the problem. If proper weed abatement isn't done, fines and penalty fees can apply. Noncompliant property owners can receive a $50 fine for the first violation, a $100 fine for second violation and a $250 fine for each additional violation within one year.
Cal Fire requires a minimum weed abatement of 30-foot clearance around all buildings and property lines by cutting or manually removing all weeds, grass and trimmings. Larger properties must be mowed within a minimum 50-foot clearance around property lines, buildings and other structures.
If the weeds are already dead and dry, firefighters say the mowing should be limited to the early morning hours to prevent sparking a fire.
County property owners who fail to effectively address their weed issues can be charged full abatement costs for a contractor to do the work, plus an additional 20 percent of the total abatement costs.
Both county and city firefighters say they hope the overgrown weeds will be cut back or removed by June.
Mitten said most property owners eventually abide by the city's weed abatement ordinance. Of the more than 7,000 notices sent to property owners last year, Mitten said a city contractor had to abate weeds on about 50 properties. "Most of them are people that are out of town. We really put the pressure on them to clean it up. If they don't then we do it," Mitten said.
The county sent out 868 courtesy weed abatement notices last year. Of that number, 484 property owners complied after the first notice, while 379 didn't complete the abatements at all after receiving at least two notices, according to Cal Fire statistics.
Anyone with questions about weed abatement in Merced can call (209) 385-6891. For questions about weed abatement in the county, call (209) 385-7347. The county's weed abatement code can also be viewed at www.qcode.us/codes/mercedcounty/.
Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.