Lompoc, CA, USA — The Lompoc Cemetery Fire attracted spectators like a Harry Potter movie. Within minutes of seeing smoke, motorists stopped along southside streets as hundreds of worried sidewalk superintendents gathered and gawked.
Will there be a sequel to the fire? Or worse, a disaster?
It is only a matter of time, experts warn. Because of drought, the moisture content in brush and grass on California hillsides has fallen to the lowest point in decades. At the same time, brush on some hills along Lompoc’s southern edge measures six feet high and directly imperils nearby homes.
If the Cemetery Fire had started at Santa Rosa Road and winds had blown to the north, those structures would have been really at risk, said Capt. Eli Iskow, of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.
The use of aircraft was another happy circumstance. It was fortunate we had the aircraft available from the Zaca Fire, points out Lompoc Fire Capt. Stan Hart. If we hadn’t had those aircraft a lot more acreage would have burned.
More can be done to prevent a catastrophe, say the professionals.
The old way of dealing with the problem was with controlled burns, but not in recent years.
They are much more difficult to do than they used to be due to air pollution control issues and public complaints, Capt. Iskow explained recently. Mostly we do them in remote areas. In proximity to populated areas you have to be unbelievably careful, so generally we don’t do them.
Though wholesale clearing of wild lands is not realistic, clearing around structures is possible, and is required by law. Iskow called attention to state code which mandates a property owner to clear 100 feet of open space around his buildings. Referring to Lompoc’s southside homes, he said, If they had 100 feet of clearance, they would have a greater chance of survival. They may burn but at least you haven’t lost your life.
However, most hillside ground abutting city limits and within 100 feet of a home on, say, Sheffield Drive, or Fir Avenue, or Willow Avenue or Cambridge Drive, is not property of the city homeowner, and thus not subject to the law.
There is no legal requirement for hillside property owners to clear their perimeter if they themselves do not have a structure nearby, but Capt. Hart recommends action regardless.
It would be in the best interest of property owners to put in a dozer line, he said. Had they done that, this fire wouldn’t have gotten anywhere.
Realizing that collective action, whether by bulldozer, mowing, hand clearing or any other method, might move more brush than individual efforts, county fire, like its cohorts in other rural counties, is encouraging the creation of Fire Safe Councils in which local property owners and businesses team up.
Fire Safe Councils have been formed in 157 California communities, from 17 in rural Siskiyou County in the far northern part of the state to a whopping 35 in San Diego County.
In Santa Barbara County, local Fire Safe Councils have formed on San Marcos Pass, in Santa Barbara on the Riviera and Mission Canyon, both of which have suffered disastrous fires, and in Tepusquet Canyon east of Santa Maria.
The Mission Canyon residents stage a Brush Cleanup Day every year. This June we had 42 tons of brush in a few hours, said a proud Jennie Cushnie, of the homeowners group.
It’s a huge community effort. Marborg gives us dumpsters nonstop. A contractor brings his backhoe. The county chips everything and waives dump fees that day for Mission Canyon. We hire laborers to get the brush into the dumpsters. That’s our only cost. If the Forest Service has guys available they will help too. This year they were busy and couldn’t come. Afterward, the county fire department hoses down the parking lot we use so we get to use it again next year.
Renee O’Neil is a leader in the Tepusquet council. It has brought the community together to work as a team with Santa Barbara County Fire and with the Forest Service, she said. It has taught us what we can do.
Tepusquet residents have helped one another clear 30-foot swaths along their driveways, established a phone tree for use in emergencies, shared information about particularly high-danger hazards with professional firefighters, and are planning a mock evacuation drill, all in addition to coordinating a brush clean-up day.
The Tepusquet group is even talking to a Lompoc man about having his sheep graze the steep hillsides of their canyon.
Ted Adams, of San Marcos Pass, is chairman of the umbrella Santa Barbara Fire Safe Council. He spelled out how it works.
The concept is to get together all the groups who operate in the wildland interface – CalTrans, insurance companies, property owners, homeowners, county and local fire departments, the utility companies, he began.
I’d love to see it happen in Lompoc. I think that’s an area that really needs it.