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Building restrictions coming to fire-prone areas

Firefighters sometimes scramble to save forest homes that maybe shouldn't have been built there.

And that can get kind of irritating, said Mikel Martin, chief of the Cal Fire unit protecting Merced, Mariposa and Madera counties.

Just how many homes have been approved in high-risk fire areas in foothills and mountains east of Highway 99 is hard to say. But gaining permission to build among the pines and scrub oak could become more difficult as fire officials step up a public information campaign to warn about fire danger.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection recently published updated hazard maps ranking fire risks, and is hosting a series of public hearings before implementing building guidelines in January. Hearings were held last week in Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, and are scheduled next week in Merced, Madera and Mariposa counties.

When the maps are finalized next year, city and county leaders can use them to determine appropriate construction materials in high-risk zones, and to update their own safety plans.

Rural areas protected by Cal Fire must adhere to state building standards, while some cities and counties are adopting more stringent standards.

Cal Fire's Tuolumne County map shows Sonora, Columbia and Twain Harte in very high risk areas, while about half of Jamestown is high risk and the other half is very high risk.

In Calaveras County, Angels Camp and San Andreas are in high risk zones, while Copperopolis is in a moderate risk zone. Murphys is surrounded by a very high risk designation.

Planners in heavily forested Mariposa County have denied building projects because of fire safety concerns, said Chris Schenk, planning director. The county has been spared major burns in his three years at the helm, though people are on edge this year.

"Everyone is freaked out about the fact that people with lawn mowers can start fires," Schenk said.

State building guidelines taking effect in January include requirements for fireresistant decks, roofs, doors and windows in risk zones. For example, double-pane windows with tempered glass have proved effective.

"Heat can break a window, then embers blow in and it burns from the inside out," explained Wayne Mitchell, project manager for Cal Fire's fire hazard map project.

See fire hazard maps, details on proposed building regulations and public hearing schedules at staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at or 578-2390.