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Monday, March 25 , 2019, 1:44 am | Fair 50º

 
 
 
 

City Council Gives Vote of Support for Wildfire Suppression Program

The Santa Barbara district, funded partially by self-imposed fees from residents, helps homeowners minimize fire damage to properties

It has been a year since the Jesusita Fire ravaged the hillsides above Santa Barbara, and a vote of support from the City Council on Tuesday aims to keep fire damage at bay from homes in that area.

Most of the homes in the foothills above the city are part of a special district — the Wildland Fire Suppression Benefit Assessment District — that pays taxes to help mitigate the effects of wildfire. The City Council approved an extension for that yearly assessment and gave the program its blessing to continue.

A vote from homeowners in that zone was taken in 2006, putting in place the self-imposed tax that calls for families in the lower foothills to pay about $70 annually for an engineer to issue a report on the properties. Homeowners higher up in the hills — in what officials call the extreme foothill zone — pay closer to $90.

That amount helps pay for several things, including the clearance of vegetation around roads, so that people can leave the area with ease should a fire break out. Road clearance is also crucial for firefighter access to those areas, Santa Barbara City Fire Marshall Joe Poire said.

An inspector will come out at the request of the homeowner to provide feedback on what could be done to prevent fire damage on the property. Homes in the foothill zone are required to have 100 feet of clearance between vegetation, and homes in the extreme foothill zone a 150-foot clearance.

During certain times, homeowners can even put cleared brush on the side of the road, which will be chipped and then can be used as mulch on the property.

Winnowing out the brush that otherwise would be fuel for fires has been so effective that the fire department and landowners have removed 1,000 tons of flammable material.

Only the people within the district pay the assessment fee, but half of the program’s money — about $200,000 — comes from the General Fund. Another $221,000 comes from the district fees.

Fire officials have been even more proactive by creating zones in large, open areas where they will actively clear out brush, such as the land around Westmont College, where the Tea Fire ripped through in 2008 and destroyed several buildings. Six months later, the Jesusita Fire burned about 8,700 acres, damaging several important watersheds.

St. Mary’s Seminary on Las Canoas Road survived both the Tea and Jesusita fires, and both times brush clearance around the seminary had been done just a few weeks prior — a fact not lost on the Rev. Patrick Mullen, director of the center.

“I have no doubt that the work of the firefighters resulted in far less damage than would have otherwise occurred,” he said, thanking the fire department.

The seminary continues with its brush abatement plan, and it’s even bringing in a herd of brush goats in a few weeks to munch on the flammable undergrowth.

Jim Knight, president of the Riviera Neighborhood Association, said he supported the program, adding that it encourages property owners to take responsibility.

But Paul Cashman, who serves on the Fire Safe Council, said he wants officials to get more serious about enforcement.

Poire said inspectors do the best they can, and that 100 cases were enforced last year. But the district has about 4,000 parcels total, and time and personnel to enforce every wayward property owner to clear the brush surrounding their homes can be time consuming.

The program received unanimous support on the dais, and Councilman Das Williams called it “one of the most important programs we’ve established.”

Mayor Helene Schneider echoed support.

“As tragic as the fires were,” she said, “they would have been much much worse had this brush not been cleared.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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