Wildfires have threatened Gary Appel's home and land more than a dozen times. Once, flames came within 100 feet of his Baker Canyon home. Yet his properties have survived unscathed.
Appel credits a safety zone that surrounds his home and borders his community's fire road--swaths of crew-cut land that he and his neighbors keep free of vegetation.
"This has worked for the past 30 years without any loss of property, life or limb," said Appel, who owns a number of parcels. If he and his neighbors did not maintain such stringent standards, "all of my properties would have been burned to the ground."
To deal with residents who are less conscientious, the county's weed abatement program swung into high gear last week and is preparing for what some officials fear will be one of the worst fire seasons in recent years. Since last Monday, private contractors hired by the county have been clearing weeds, overgrown vegetation and other debris in unincorporated areas.
"All the major fires that have occurred in Orange County--[overgrown weeds] helped spread them," said Jon Anderson, director of the weed abatement program. "You get a couple of vacant lots that have weeds and pretty soon the whole neighborhood is on fire."
Of the unincorporated area's 72,000 parcels, about 250 are cleared each year. Most of the work takes place in April, May and June.
Many are vacant lots whose owners live elsewhere, Anderson said. "The people that live around them are trying to keep their property clean and fire-safe."
Residents whose land is cleared pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars, depending on the parcel's size. But they are given an opportunity to do the work themselves.
In early March, notices were mailed to about 2,500 land owners who have had or are likely to have weed problems.
"We tell the property owner to clear it," Anderson said. "If they don't clear it in a certain amount of time--we give 30 days of notice--the county will come in with a private contractor and cut the property."
Bills average $450 to $500, but each year a few large property owners pay $1,000 to $2,000.
In 1997, 257 properties were cleared and billed a total of $151,004.
Some landowners, such as Dr. William Lattos, say they have been unfairly charged. Lattos spoke to the Board of Supervisors at the board's April 13 meeting to protest his weed abatement bills of $675 in the 1997-98 fiscal year and $873 in the 1998-99 fiscal year. He said he had witnesses who saw he had already cleared his Santa Ana lot when county contractors cleared it again.
The board directed him to the Public Facilities and Resources Department, which oversees the weed abatement program.