The Lompoc Valley Fuel Reduction Project sounds promising from both a fire management and community safety standpoint. If that sounds redundant, it is.
Anyone who travels the roads through large stands of chaparral (aka solid gasoline because of its high oil content) and trees is acutely aware that a lot of those plants are dead or dying. Combine a “fuel load,” as firefighters call it, like that with an ignition source, hot, dry and windy weather, and you have a recipe for a catastrophic fire.
Every year we have experienced disastrous fires throughout the western United States that demonstrate this concern.
A recent report by Noozhawk defined the project this way: “The Lompoc Valley Fuel Reduction Project looks to reduce hazards around the Vandenberg Village, Mission Hills and Mesa Oaks communities with a four-year, $2.5 million effort funded primarily by a CAL FIRE grant, the largest of its kind for Santa Barbara County.”
This is a bold and long-needed effort; it will take many months to complete. The process would include use of chain saws, hand crews, some controlled burns and mechanical fuel thinning using what’s known as a masticator. This machine is commonly used to cut and chop or grind vegetation into particles that are usually left onsite as mulch.
The primary purpose of mulching is to lower the vertical height of fuels and is an alternative to chemical treatment of competitive species, for aesthetic treatments, right-of-way maintenance, and range rehabilitation.
The firefighters’ goal is to create fuel breaks (fire control points) along roads and an 18-mile-long firebreak from the eastern edge of a Vandenberg Air Force Base-maintained break to Drum Canyon. The rule of thumb is to clear a path twice the width of the highest vegetation; for grass it’s a little harder to judge since it only takes a small wind-driven spark to ignite it.
This project doesn’t include any work near power lines. The issue with PG&E and Southern California Edison has been that they haven’t always cleared areas around their electric lines or properly maintained their equipment to prevent sparks.
When lines make contact in the wind or worn connections cause sparks, they can drop into the vegetation under and around the power lines and start large fires in hard to reach places.
This project is a commendable effort, but I am waiting for the other shoe to drop; environmental groups have long opposed any efforts to manage the fire potential in this county. They think all this dead and dying vegetation is far more important than the safety of the people living in the path of fires that inevitably occur.
They have created many obstacles to processes like this through the near elimination of controlled burns. In this case, they used Air Pollution Control District rules to limit when and under what weather conditions burns can occur.
When conditions can satisfy APCD rules, they may not be the best time for firefighters to conduct a successful burn operation; so, very little controlled burning has occurred over the last couple of decades.
Then there are the inevitable environmental studies that must be completed; the environmentalists have an endless list of hypothetical concerns to everything from creatures that may have lived in the area hundreds of years ago to claiming that what’s occurring is natural and nature should take care of the problem, not humans.
Their concerns fail to take into consideration that natural fire causes are limited to lightning strikes that rarely occur in our county, especially in the Lompoc Valley. Many, well most of the fires are caused by vehicles, campfires, power lines or arson.
On March 22, citing the extreme peril posed by wildfire risk, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an Emergency Proclamation directing CAL FIRE to immediately implement 35 projects to protect lives and property. To ensure necessary work could get underway immediately, the proclamation suspended certain environmental requirements and regulations.
(Link to governor’s declaration, http://resources.ca.gov/community-wildfire-prevention/.
The Emergency Proclamation provides that the secretary of the Natural Resources Agency (CNRA) and the secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) use their discretion to suspend state environmental permitting requirements on a case-by-case basis so the 35 priority projects can get underway immediately, including suspending requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
But the Lompoc Valley Fuel Reduction Project was not one of the 35 included in the declaration.
As we have witnessed these fires can be devastating and create far more damage to the vegetation and animal habitats than any controlled efforts. As far as air conditions go, the air quality is always severely impacted by uncontrolled fires for several days instead of the few hours duration of a controlled burn as we witnessed recently from drift smoke traveling from a fire in Ventura County.
Hopefully, the “concerned citizens” who both support environmental obstruction with their financial aid and their public persona and those of their soldiers who are the nagging activists will take a time out and allow this project and others like it to proceed without any effort to delay it.
But I am probably dreaming. In their minds “saving the earth” and all its dead and dying plants is probably far more important than protecting the people living on it.
— Ron Fink, a Lompoc resident since 1975, is retired from the aerospace industry and has been active with Lompoc municipal government commissions and committee since 1992, including 12 years on the Lompoc Planning Commission. He is also a voting member of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.