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Pre-Winter Hydromulching to Ramp Up Traffic at Santa Barbara Airport

The next few weeks will be noisy for residents with aerial operations on Gap Fire areas starting Sept. 24.

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The hydromulch mixture to be dropped onto areas burned by this summer’s Gap Fire was also used after last year’s Santiago Fire in Orange County. (Los Padres National Forest courtesy photo)

Goleta, grab your earplugs.

The aerial hydromulching that is part of the winter storm preparations will be based out of the Santa Barbara Airport and is likely to double, even triple, airport traffic for the next several weeks as aircraft will fly in and out to load up on hydromulch and drop it onto areas burned by the Gap Fire. The blaze burned through about 3,500 acres of land in the forest and foothills north of the Goleta Valley last July.

“Those are high-performance planes, and they’re not quiet,” Airport Director Karen Ramsdell said.

Aero Tech, the contractor that the U.S. Forest Service and Santa Barbara County have selected to perform the treatment, will use several aircraft, including AT-802 Air Tractors and an A-64E heli-tanker to drop tons of the erosion-controlling mulch onto the burn areas. While the six planes will fly out of the airport, the heli-tanker will operate out of a private ranch off Highway 154, said Kathy Good of USFS Los Padres National Forest public affairs.

Operations for the hydromulching of federal lands will begin Sept. 24 and are expected to last about 22 days. Weather permitting, the hydromulching will occur from just before sunrise to just after sunset, seven days a week. The operations for county lands will begin immediately after the federal treatments are complete.

The amount of burned land to be covered in the county is about equal to the amount of land to be covered in the Los Padres National Forest (about 1,500 acres), therefore it is expected that the hydromulching operations for the county area will be just as intense and take up about the same amount of time, putting the end date for increased airport operations around the end of the first week of November.

“The intense hours of work and seven days per week is simply because we want to get this material on the ground as soon as possible,” Jon Frye, engineering manager in the county’s Public Works Department, wrote in an e-mail to Noozhawk. “Hydromulching an area this size represents a formidable challenge.”

Consent from landowners is essential, he said, because the county burn areas are on private land. If the county is not allowed to enter some private properties, the amount of treatment — and the time taken to do it — could lessen.

At a cost of $3,134.94 per acre treated for the federal lands (the cost for the county lands has yet to be determined because of factors such as wage rate differences), and the predicted severity of flooding and erosion this winter, concerns about the effectiveness of hydromulch have been brought to the county’s attention.

“This hydromulch is nothing more than window dressing,” one commenter said at last week’s Gap Fire forum.

Frye said the county is relying on the expertise of the Forest Service to decide which hydromulch mixture to use. According to Forest Service specifications, the paper/wood fiber mulch mix is to be “40 percent paper, 60 percent wood mulch, noxious weed free” and the tackifier to be an “organic guar-gum based nontoxic product.”

In Aero-Tech’s opinion, Frye said, the mixture is “very effective.” The county has, nevertheless, forwarded the concerns to the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, one of the federal partners involved in the winter storm preparations. The NRCS is expected to reimburse the county for up to 75 percent of the cost of the hydromulching, with the state Office of Emergency Services and the cities of Santa Barbara and Goleta pitching in to offset the county’s cost.

According to Good, the hydromulch mixture has been used before, in last year’s Santiago Fire in Orange County and the Angora Fire at Lake Tahoe.

“It’s not a cure,” she said, “but it is effective in controlling erosion.”

There are areas that will not be treated, however, such as lands with more than a 60 percent slope, lands that have a certain amount of rocky outcropping and private lands for which the landowner has not granted county access. 

Downstream, the airport and the city of Goleta are gearing up to take on the extra workload.

“I’ve already met with the (air traffic control) tower,” Ramsdell said.

While details have yet to be ironed out, she confirmed that no flight cancellations will occur as a result of the increased air traffic. Airport administrators are working on a Plan B in case the tower gets overwhelmed or low-visibility conditions affect operations. They also are working with the city of Goleta to ensure word gets to the residents who will be most affected by the noise generated at the airport.

“We’re concerned about the noise, the air traffic, the air pollution,” Goleta City Manager Dan Singer said. “But it’s going to be unavoidable. It’s a necessary evil, but we do want to be as pro-active as we can be so the residents really know what’s going on.”

Noozhawk staff writer Sonia Fernandez can be reached at [email protected]

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