Along with blue lupine, yellow mustard flowers and other traditional signs of spring, little orange notices on wooden spikes are sprouting along front lawns and side roads in Mount Washington this week.
The notices are from the Los Angeles Fire Department, warning property owners to quickly cut back the shrubs and grasses that make the hillside neighborhood one of the city's worst fire hazard areas.
Failure to comply could lead the city to hire a landscape contractor for the trimming and add the bill and a fine, totaling as much as $5,000, to the owner's property taxes.
The city hopes to avoid that by giving warnings, officials say. So, on every May 1 since 1982, firefighters begin to comb an estimated 7,500 properties on the canyon streets and steep backyards of Mount Washington, looking for the violating laurel, the recidivistic sagebrush. This year, more warnings are expected because rules are stricter than in the past.
"We don't intend to be policemen, but anything we can do to prevent a larger problem up there gives us a head start. We want to prevent something getting out of hand and taking out some structure," explained Capt. Scott Fries of Fire Station 44, which covers most of the area from its soon-to-be replaced headquarters on Cypress Avenue.
The monthlong search and resulting frenzy of gardening have become a spring ritual, a rhythm of life on the hill, only three miles from downtown Los Angeles but so rural in atmosphere that its residents association calls it a "megalop-oasis." It is the only Los Angeles neighborhood, outside the so-called Mountain Fire District and buffer zones in the Santa Monica, Santa Susana and San Gabriel ranges, where such annual inspections are required.
"If you made a list of potential problems to make a bad brush fire, you've got them all here," Fries said.
Because of its geography and exposure to wind and sun, Mount Washington is more conducive to the quick growth of native brush than nearby hillside neighborhoods such as El Sereno, officials say. Mount Washington's canyons provide an easy path for fire spread--"like a chimney," one firefighter said. And its narrow, winding roads, some of them unpaved, can make it difficult for fire engines to reach blazes.
Matters are made worse by the many children who live there and sometimes seem to have nothing better to do on a summer afternoon than light matches and toss them into dry grass on empty lots. That sets Mount Washington apart from more affluent mountain areas such as Bel-Air or Beverly Glen Canyon, where fewer children live.
"A few years ago, we seemed to have more grass fires in Mount Washington than in any other area of the city. It became a game with kids," said Capt. Jim Haworth, who heads the Fire Department's brush-clearance program. Summer sometimes brought as many as 50 grass fires a day on the hill, he said. Several homes were destroyed. However, since the annual inspections began summer fires have declined to about two a day, Haworth said.
This year, after the devastating fire last July in Baldwin Hills that killed three people and destroyed or damaged more than 60 houses, the city tightened the Fire Code. Under the old rules, grass, brush and hazardous vegetation had to be cut to no more than three inches high within 30 feet of a building, and 18 inches within 70 feet. Now, the three-inch rule applies to all land within 100 feet of a structure, according to mailings sent to Mount Washington homes in March. That includes empty lots near homes.
"Fire travels along dry grass into a house like a wick. Thirty feet is nothing. It can take 30 seconds when you have a wind going," said Fries.
Unchanged are requirements that grass must be similarly cut within 10 feet from any road and that the trunk of any tree within 100 feet of a house must be free of branches for the first five feet from the ground.
15 Days to Comply
After receiving a warning notice, a property owner has 15 days to clean his land. If he doesn't, the city can call him in for a hearing and, if still not satisfied, can hire a contractor, often no later than midsummer. The contracts usually add $400 to $1,000, plus a $250 fine, to tax bills; on very large properties, the extra cost can be as much as $5,000.
About one-quarter to one-third of all homes inspected receive warnings. Last year, about 200 Mount Washington property owners received cleanup bills, according to inspector John Garcia, who handles contracts for the area.
Despite Mount Washington's proximity to downtown, there are many empty lots there that have been purchased by absentee owners in tax sales. Sometimes, the cleanup bill is more than the land is worth, so the owner abandons the property and it is sold again in tax sales, Garcia said.
For area residents, firemen sometimes lean over backward to coax compliance, especially from elderly people who can't do the work quickly themselves and can't afford gardeners.