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Los Padres National Forest Looks to Better Defend Mountain Communities from Wildfire Threats

Defense zone initiative focuses on reducing risk through fuel breaks and helping containment efforts around at-risk areas if blazes spark

Painted Cave is one of the communities where Los Padres National Forest officials plan to implement the Santa Barbara Mountain Communities Defense Zone Project. Click to view larger
Painted Cave is one of the communities where Los Padres National Forest officials plan to implement the Santa Barbara Mountain Communities Defense Zone Project. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

Fourteen years ago, Vern Hall visited a cabin at Circle Bar B Guest Ranch in Refugio Canyon west of Goleta and found his home. Nestled in a mountain community, he’s all-too familiar with the close encounters of a wildfire.

“You get used to living away from people, and it’s a great place to live,” he told Noozhawk. “The biggest thing we worry about living in the mountains is fire.”

The 73-year-old Hall and his wife, Donna, nearly lost their cabin during the Sherpa Fire earlier this year when flames ignited near buildings at Rancho La Scherpa Christian Conference Center near the top of Refugio Canyon.

“I was amazed that we had a home to go back to,” Hall said. “When we got back home, we had to repack all over again (the Bar Fire broke out on Aug. 4). The firefighters do a fabulous job at protecting the structures.”

As California grapples with five years of drought, the likelihood of homes being threatened by wildfire only grows.

To protect properties most vulnerable to the impact, Los Padres National Forest officials recently announced the Santa Barbara Mountain Communities Defense Zone Project.

Maintaining vegetation around a property’s perimeter is one factor in whether a residence will survive a wildfire, forest fuels officer Nic Elmquist said.

“This is an ongoing project regarding maintenance,” Elmquist said. “The goal is to create more resilient landscapes, help at-risk communities be fire adaptive and try to provide a safer and more effective firefighter response.”

The project is designed to reduce the wildfire threat to the communities of Painted Cave, San Marcos Trout Club, Haney Tract, Rosario Park, Refugio and Gaviota by enabling fire crews to defend structures and wildfires habitat from a blaze.

U.S. Forest Service officials plan to work with Santa Barbara-area mountain communities to defend against wildfires. Click to view larger
U.S. Forest Service officials plan to work with Santa Barbara-area mountain communities to defend against wildfires. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

More than 400 acres have been mapped out and the project will improve existing fuel breaks located around the roads and properties next to Los Padres National Forest, Elmquist said.

Each year, an average of more than 73,000 wildfires burn about 7 million acres of federal, state and private land and more than 2,600 structures, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Firefighters are going to be alert in the communities to secure homes from a wildfire moving from national forest system land onto private property, Elmquist said.

“This would reduce the risk and impact of a fire burning through the community,” he said. “Some communities have shown initiatives to do hazard reduction, and this would continue on forest service land.”

Fuel breaks can decrease the intensity of fire behavior within these at-risk areas. Brush maintenance can help slow a wildfire, reduce its heat and shorten the length of flames.

“A lot of the hazard reduction occurs during the emergency time, and often that puts the first responders at an increased risk,” Elmquist said.

“Because they are working during an emergency they may have more resource damage compared if the work was completed in a nonemergency situation.”

He said the project also reduces risk to forest watersheds by helping prevent a wildfire moving into the national forest from adjacent private lands.

“We feel it’s worthy and worth the work time,” Elmquist said. “The project will help with watershed protection and the drought conditions along a watershed.”

The Santa Barbara Mountain Communities Defense Zone Project also aims to aid first responders by providing evacuation routes and safer access adjacent to and within the remote communities.

A new initiative will work to prevent wildfires on U.S. Forest Service land from spreading to private property, and vice versa, according to Los Padres National Forest officials. Click to view larger
A new initiative will work to prevent wildfires on U.S. Forest Service land from spreading to private property, and vice versa, according to Los Padres National Forest officials. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

Elmquist said the project is scheduled to begin later this fall or in the winter.

“Often the people doing the pre-suppression planning work are the same people who are tasked with suppressing the fires, which we have been busy with this year,” he said. “We hope to begin as soon as possible.”

This project was designed using the fundamentals of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, which is intended to establish a national, collaborative vision for managing wildfires.

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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