Which Canyon Will Burn Next?

Which Canyon Will Burn Next?

26 November 2008

published by www.independent.com

USA — As the smoke blew away on Friday morning and it became clear that more than 200 homes had been destroyed by the Tea Fire, Santa Barbara was left pondering the impact of a blaze whose costs may tally close to a billion dollars — this in just a little over 12 hours.

The burned area was relatively small, just under 2,000 acres. What remains are thousands more acres of unburned fuels, stretching across the heart of Santa Barbara from San Roque on the west to Toro Canyon on the east. The assets still at risk easily top $50 billion in value.

Yet a drive into the Riviera, Mission Canyon, Montecito foothills, or other parts of what fire officials call the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) provides the stunning realization that the homes throughout these communities are choked with burnable vegetation. Despite state fire policy that requires homeowners in high fire-hazard areas to clear their homes for a distance of 100 feet, it is easy to find hundreds of examples of homes completely enclosed by vegetation.

Firefighters commonly talk about eliminating the vertical ladder fuels, which can lift a fire from the ground up into the tree canopy, enabling the wind to spread it quickly. Less talked about but as important are the horizontal ladders, constructed when these communities are allowed to accumulate tons of fuel in the tree canopies themselves.

For decades, public officials have mouthed all the right things when it comes to protecting the community from fire — yet at the same time they allow homeowners to landscape their homes in ways wildly antithetical to fire-safe practices.

This is of immense concern considering Santa Barbara’s topography. As sundowner winds are compressed by high pressure, they grow in heat and velocity, concentrating their force along the natural canyon drainages. San Roque, Mission Canyon, Rattlesnake, Cold Spring, San Ysidro, and Romero canyons provide funnels through which the winds can build speed. When nearby ladder fuels exist in abundance, catastrophe is almost guaranteed.

From faulty mufflers to kite-flying to arson — and now partying — there have been a variety of sparks for these infernos. The Tea Fire is a classic example. The smoldering remains of a campfire morphed into a firestorm that raced like wind through Westmont College, across Coyote Road, west along Mountain Drive, and then south along the western flank of Sycamore Canyon up into the Riviera — all within the space of an hour. It was similar to the 1977 Sycamore Canyon Fire, which destroyed 195 homes in seven hours.

Now is the time to make a commitment to ensuring that our community never again is forced to endure such a painful disaster.

Homeowners who live in areas of high fire danger may not want to hear this, but you are a big part of the problem. Every house that catches on fire is likely to take out several others, so with no exceptions, every single home in a high-risk area needs to be highly fire-resistant.

As important, you need to manage your vegetation so that it does not add to the horizontal fuel load — even the most fire-resistant house can withstand the 50-foot flames we just experienced for only so long. So take a hard look at your landscaping and the rest of your neighborhood. Ask yourself if you’re willing to feel personally responsible for it spreading fire.

Even harder questions need be asked of our politicians — both city and county. Decades of land-use and planning policies that have ignored the impacts of placing homes in the midst of high-risk areas, without restrictions or conditions to mitigate fire dangers, have gotten us where we are today. Fire-safe homes and sensible vegetation management strategies aren’t luxuries to be encouraged over time; they are necessities that need to be implemented now.

This week, thanks to a grant obtained by the Mission Canyon Association, goats are being used to eat back the brush in the upper parts of the canyon. While an admirable part of a larger strategy, their use encourages those who live in Mission Canyon to think that the problem can be solved by working around the edges of the WUI. A wildland buffer is great, but the focus should remain within the at-risk neighborhoods themselves.

Perhaps the first thing that city (Santa Barbara, Goleta, and Carpinteria), county, and Forest Service officials can do to demonstrate that they understand the problem, and are willing to do something about it, is to begin a multi-agency, region-wide approach, across political boundaries, with the intent of eliminating the problem — which is not wildfire itself, but the conditions we’ve allowed to develop that makes it possible for wildfire to sweep through our residential neighborhoods, with predictably disastrous results.

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