KENSINGTON -- With her practiced eye, Ciara Wood takes a mental note of hemlock, drying berry bushes and clumps of dry grass along a woodland trail below her home.
These plants are part of nature, sure, but are also undesirable fire fuel, particularly in today's extreme drought conditions, both she and local fire officials say.
As both summer and continuing drought dry out the land, Wood assures the potential fire kindling will be taken care of in due time.
For more than 20 years Wood has devoted herself to maintaining a trail and fire break in the northern part of Wildcat Canyon and on the edge of Tilden Regional Park.
Wearing a large-brimmed hat, she can be frequently seen snipping poison oak or blackberry bushes, and chatting with walkers and their dogs.
At the heart of her efforts is fire prevention, but she's also helped maintain a popular walking path fondly dubbed Ye Olde School Trail with a handmade sign by a nearby resident.
Calling herself the "Tall Elf," Wood is leader of the whimsically-named Woodland Elves, a neighborhood group that works on the path, and helps one another with brush removal and fire safety efforts.
She also represents Kensington as a director on the Diablo Firesafe Council. Its aim is to work with communities to lower and break up fire fuels and reduce wildfire hazards.
The popular trail for walkers and dogs is an added bonus.
With gorgeous views of park open space, the path winds through woods to Kensington Hilltop Elementary School with several offshoots. Above are homes that abut the East Bay Regional Park District boundaries.
"This is about (fire) safety, but at the same time isn't it pretty?" Wood said while on a recent trail walk.
Connie Pyle walks the trail with her dog Jazzy at least twice a week.
"It's well-maintained by volunteers," she said. And of Wood, she added "She's very resourceful and helpful."
Anne Christ, who lives along one of the trail's offshoots, uses the path to walk her dog Joey at least once a day. She said public use of the area is so important that her property has a public access deed.
For Wood, the open space is beautiful but the landscape is also a source of fire worry. It's been at least 100 years since a large wildfire has swept up the north side of Wildcat Canyon, she said.
Kensington Fire Protection District Fire Marshall and Battalion Chief Michael Bond noted that there is a tremendous amount of "fuel buildup" of vegetation that poses a big threat of a rapid wildfire.
Property owners are strongly advised to clear brush around their buildings, creating a fire break that can halt the spread of flames, he said.
For Wood, the trail work is ongoing and part of her and her neighbors' "enlightened self-interest" that protects homes and maintains the path.
"We're doing the part we can do," Wood said.
Pruning shears, weed whackers, shovels and other tools are used to trim bushes, and remove flammable vegetation and spread wood chips. A Pacific Gas & Electric grant and other financial support allow for larger projects to be completed.
A bit of magic is also involved, such as mysterious donations of wood chips which are used to suppress weed growth, and to make trail parts more passable in rainy weather.
From working in her garden, Wood said she learned how to approach her own property and what can seem like an insurmountable task of clearing brush.
"You start out with what is easiest to conceive and once you start it gets easier," she said.
"It's very simple," she said.
Kensington is close to Wood's heart. She grew up in the unincorporated Contra Costa town, left town at age 10, and then came back three decades ago.
She's long been active in community affairs. She helped create Kensington Park and has served on other boards and commissions. She has been lauded by several organizations over the years for her service.
Her passion for fire protection began when she faced an enormous mound of blackberry bushes, ivy and other unruly vegetation in the rear of her property that also reached her house.
The catastrophic 1991 Oakland firestorm, one of the largest urban wildland fires in history, lent some urgency to the work and still is a vivid reminder of why clearing brush is so important.
The maintenance work on the fire break is ongoing because the plants, shrubs and grass always grow back, Wood said.
Bond applauds Wood's work as invaluable in reducing fire risk, and also giving firefighters access.
Such work is even more critical now, he said, after three years of drought and extreme lack of moisture in vegetation.
"We're well ahead of where we should be at this time due to the ongoing drought," he said. "We have critically low fuel moisture" now with months of dry weather still ahead, he added.
Wood, he said, serves as an example and inspiration for other property owners and neighborhood groups.
He advises others faced with a big job of clearing brush around buildings to start out small and work toward bigger tasks.
East Bay park district fire Captain Brad Gallup called Wood's work "very beneficial" in terms of decreasing fire risks, particularly in the current conditions.
For Wood, the sense of stewardship of the path and fire break is strong. She said there are also great personal rewards, and she's appreciative of all the work her neighbors do.
She has no intention of stopping anytime soon. "If I didn't enjoy it I wouldn't be out here doing it," she said.
The Kensington Fire Protection District requests property owners take the following steps to remove flammable vegetation:
For more details visit www.kensingtonfire.org/safety/.