Saving Mountain Dwellers from Wildfire

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Saving Mountain Dwellers from Wildfire
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Firefighters say that a fuel break stopped the Lookout Fire from burning down Painted Cave in October, 2012. The San Marcos Pass Volunteer Fire Department is shown here, dousing the flames on steep slopes (Photo by Mike Eliason, Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

By Melinda Burns

Every major block of native chaparral on the South Coast mountainside has burned in this century, with three exceptions.

The Gaviota Coast from Arroyo Hondo to Refugio Canyon hasn’t burned since the 1950s, and there’s no record of when the Hollister Ranch last burned. But the biggest threat to lives and homes today, authorities say, would be a wildfire on the steep slopes that run from the foothills of the eastern Goleta Valley up to San Marcos Pass and down the other side to Paradise Road.

Much of the chaparral on the south-facing slopes here hasn’t burned since the devastating Painted Cave Fire, a “sundowner” blaze that was set near the pass by an arsonist in June, 1990. It still ranks as the most destructive wildfire in Santa Barbara County, with one fatality and 640 structures lost. In 100-degree heat, the fire raced down-canyon in violent winds and jumped all six lanes of Highway 101.

“Among the fire chiefs and firefighters, we’re looking at San Marcos Pass as the place where it’s inevitable – in a short amount of time, we’re going to see the next iteration of the Painted Cave Fire,” said Rob Hazard, a County Fire Department battalion chief and deputy fire marshal.

In all, more than 7,300 people live in 12 picturesque enclaves stacked like the layers of a wedding cake up and down both sides of the pass over the Santa Ynez Mountains. They include the San Marcos foothills, East and West Camino Cielo, Painted Cave, San Marcos Trout Club, Old San Marcos Road and Paradise Canyon. Most are private in-holdings within the Los Padres National Forest. They contain more than 1,500 homes and outbuildings – hundreds of old wood cabins, dozens of modern homes, especially in the front-country foothills, and a sprinkling of big estates.

Efforts to address the looming fire threat, however, have been unable to produce a consensus among fire experts, homeowners and other stakeholders. It has been a persistent, sometimes harsh, either/or debate, pitting those who insist more fuel breaks are the solution vs. those who insist the top priority is for residents to “harden” their homes against fire.

Lives and property hang in the balance, and so do hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential state grants for wildfire protection. Meanwhile, residents anxiously watch the August temperatures soar.

“We listen to both sides and we can see both sides,” said Seyburn Zorthian, a longtime homeowner in Painted Cave, which sits atop a rough plateau, high on the mountainside. The community itself – about 100 homes and 300 people – narrowly escaped the 1990 fire that bears its name.

“I know there’s going to be some horrendous fire, and I sometimes just have to resign myself to losing everything,” Zorthian said. “But it’s a really nice community to live in. I really feel, here, like I belong.”

Painted Cave is perched atop a rough plateau near San Marcos Pass. It is the largest and highest of the private in-holdings within forest lands in the Santa Ynez Mountains. Firefighters favor thinning the chaparral to create more “fuel breaks” around Painted Cave and 11 other communities on both sides of San Marcos Pass. Environmentalist groups and scientists say the priority should be helping homeowners make their homes more fire-resistant (Photo by Melinda Burns)

A plan in limbo

Hazard is co-chairman of a team of fire experts and community volunteers who have worked for two years to draft a 200-page wildfire protection plan for the San Marcos Pass – Eastern Goleta Valley communities. The $93,000 consultant’s fee was shared by the county and state, and the plan has been awaiting county review for months.

The San Marcos plan was billed as a collaborative effort among government agencies, community groups and scientists; but two environmentalist groups, Los Padres ForestWatch and the Santa Barbara Urban Creeks Council, resigned from the team in protest earlier this year. Several of the scientific advisors called the plan a throwback to an “older approach” and implored the team to make significant revisions.

According to Hazard, the plan identifies 250 acres, or one percent, of the 30-square-mile plan area, where vegetation would be thinned out or cut down, mostly on private land, to help protect mountain residents from wildfire. Thirty-eight separate projects are proposed, half of them along roadways. The vegetation along the roads would be cleared 10 to 20 feet on each side, chiefly along Highway 154.

If all these “fuel treatments” were contracted out, it would cost up to $80,000 to clear every 10 acres, Hazard said. Much of the work, however, would likely be done by county public works and fire department hand crews and community volunteers, with state and federal grants providing partial funding, he said.

The idea, Hazard said, is to thin out dense vegetation in strategic spots next to the communities where, in an average wildfire – not an extreme one – firefighters can make a stand, protect homes, evacuate residents and save themselves.

“I have been in the front of many wind-driven fires,” he said. “The only thing that can guarantee we can get home safely at night is that we have space to work.”

At the same time, the plan states that 42 percent to 86 percent of mountain homes and outbuildings, depending on which community they are in, fall into the category of “low defensibility” in a wildfire, meaning it would be hard for firefighters to save them, especially in sundowner conditions.

Many residents have not replaced their wood shake roofs and siding, installed double-pane windows, placed ember-resistant screens over their attic vents, or even cleaned out their gutters, the plan notes. They haven’t removed wood fences and wood decks that can act as conduits for fire, or cleared a safe space around their homes.

“There are significant opportunities for wildfires to ignite, establish and destroy structures,” the plan states.

Jeff Kuyper, executive director of ForestWatch, a nonprofit conservationist group, together with Urban Creeks and the scientific advisors, have argued that the San Marcos Plan should be focused on retrofitting homes and improving evacuation plans, not on altering the natural landscape to fight out-of-control fires.

The county should aggressively seek state and federal grants to help mountain residents “harden” their homes and establish a “defensible space” around them, Kuyper said. Currently, no state money is earmarked for that purpose.

The plan recommends that the county develop an educational brochure on retrofits, but this is lip-service, the critics say.

“When I saw that, I felt tremendous discouragement,” said Richard Halsey, a scientific advisor for plan and a biologist who heads the California Chaparral Institute, a nonprofit research group based in Escondido. “I was under the illusion that we were all working to reduce the vulnerability of communities.”

Things fell apart in January after a few members disparaged the scientists in an internal email chain, suggesting they were not real experts, Halsey said. Kuyper quit the team soon after, and so did Dan McCarter, vice-president of Urban Creeks.

“The plan was very much tilted towards clearing of vegetation,” Kuyper said in a recent interview. “We keep doing the same thing over and over again. We can make all the fuel breaks in the world, but embers can travel far, and unless structures are fire-safe, that work is all going to be forgotten.”

More than 80 percent of the homes in Painted Cave get a “low defensibility” rating under the plan, meaning it would be hard for firefighters to save them in a fire (Photo by Melinda Burns)

August, the hottest month

While the debate simmers, so do the hot spells of summer.

The record seven-year drought, which shows no signs of lessening, has killed a lot of brush on the steep slopes along Highway 154, creating volatile conditions for fire. Because of prolonged heat, the moisture in the chaparral, monitored every two weeks by county fire officials, is hitting critical flammable levels. Cars climbing the pass often overheat and catch on fire, typically sparking four or five small fires yearly. And August is the hottest month of the year.

As Mike Williams, president of the Wildlands Residents Association, representing six mountain communities, says: “It gets so hot up here, you can actually watch the plants start to wilt, as if you’d put them in an oven.”

Williams, a resident of Rosario Park, an enclave of 23 homes on the west side of 154, over the pass, carries a scanner so that he can receive immediate wildfire alerts. He is a self-proclaimed “huge advocate” of more fuel breaks; he says his association has obtained nearly $1.5 million in state and federal grants for such projects since the mid-1980s.

“You could have crews up here working around the year and it wouldn’t be enough,” Williams said.

In the past, about 1,500 acres of chaparral have been cleared by the county, Los Padres and private landowners in the 12 mountain communities. That includes a piece of the Camino Cielo fuel break, which was created in 1970 by spraying Agent Orange, an herbicide left over from the Vietnam War, along 40 miles of the ridgeline road.

Yet a 2011 study of four Southern California forests, including Los Padres, found that fuel breaks stop fires only 47 percent of the time, at best – if firefighters can reach them. At least half of fuel breaks never even intersect fires, the study found. Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey, UC-Los Angeles and the Conservation Biology Institute of la Mesa, Calif. based their conclusions on 28 years of data, beginning in 1980; 640 wildfires occurred within the boundaries of the four forests during that time.

Firefighters know that fuel breaks won’t stop a wildfire on San Marcos Pass from blasting down the canyons like a blowtorch in 75-mile-per hour sundowner winds. But fuel breaks, they say, can help them “flank” an unruly wildfire and “take the steam” out of it by setting backfires.

The Los Padres recently drew up a plan of its own for new fuel breaks totaling 200 acres around the mountain communities of Painted Cave, Trout Club, Rosario Park and Haney Tract, a community just west of the Trout Club. The work is ongoing and will cost between $200,000 and $300,000. For Painted Cave alone, a fuel break nearly a mile long has been approved.

Max Moritz, an advisor for the San Marcos Plan and a statewide fire specialist with UC Cooperative Extension at UCSB, said he was not opposed to creating some strategic fuel breaks near communities at risk. But an equal amount of time, effort and money should go into helping homeowners retrofit their homes, he said.

Without doing that work, Moritz asked, “What have you really accomplished? You still have all these vulnerable structures that are going to be much more difficult to keep from burning…”

“Climate change is going to lead to more, potentially large, more severe fires, and more communities exposed to fires,” Moritz said. “There’s a growing awareness among scientists studying fire that that’s separate from the problem of why homes burn and people die.

“The problem of fatalities and loss of homes hinges more on what we build in the wildland-urban interface, and how we get people out when there’s not a lot of time.”

Phil Seymour of Painted Cave, the co-chair of a wildfire protection plan for San Marcos Pass communities, has his own fire hose, which he can hook up to a neighbor’s swimming pool. The roof, siding and eaves of his home are fire-resistant (Photo by Melinda Burns)

Living in wildlands

According to research by ForestWatch, more than 60 new homes (not replacement homes) have been built in footprint of the Painted Cave Fire since the fire reduced 5,000 acres to ashes, 30 years ago.

Nationally, the “wildland-urban interface,” or areas where homes are built in or near natural vegetation, grew by more than 12 million homes between 1990 and 2010, an increase of 40 percent, and added a third more land area, according to a study last year by researchers from UC-Berkeley, the University of Wisconsin, the USGS and other institutions. With more people living in such places, wildfires “will be hard to fight, and letting natural fires burn becomes impossible,” the study stated.

The lure of scenic 180-degree views and woodsy neighborhoods far from city traffic is unmistakable. Home prices in such remote areas are more affordable, too. But living in nature comes with built-in risks. A number of Painted Cave residents have had their fire insurance canceled or their rates substantially increased.

“This is a great place to live, except when it’s burning, and then all the factors that make it beautiful work against you,” said Kevin Buckley, chief of the Painted Cave Volunteer Fire Department, which has its own fire trucks and 22 volunteers.

“People do get freaked out,” Buckley said. “The biggest thing they want to know is, can they sleep tonight?”

Buckley is on the team that drew up the San Marcos plan. He estimates that Painted Cave has received up to $60,000 in public and private grants for vegetation clearance since 2009.

“This area is way better than it used to be, but not nearly where we need to be,” Buckley said.

Phil Seymour, a Painted Cave resident and a former seasonal firefighter with the Los Padres Hotshot crew, co-chairs the San Marcos planning team with Hazard. Since the late 1980s, he’s spent countless hours with a chainsaw, clearing the vegetation around Painted Cave.

“Conditions can be so extreme that there’s just nothing you can do,” Seymour said. “What we’re planning for, to give us a best chance at surviving, is a reasonable worst-case fire. The whole point of the fuel clearing is so that when it gets here, it won’t be a solid wall of flames.”

It was a fuel break that stopped the Lookout Fire from burning down Painted Cave on a windless morning in October, 2012, Seymour said. Paying homeowners to “harden” their homes would improve their chances, but it wouldn’t necessarily save the structures, he said.

“If there’s any chink in the armor, the fire’s going to get in,” Seymour said. “There are no guarantees. If the window’s open, that’s a problem.”

But other residents object to what they view as scars on the landscape that mar the natural look. They’re concerned about the highly flammable grasses that have invaded those cleared areas. And they fear that fuel breaks are giving their neighbors a false sense of security.

Tom Dudley, a UCSB marine biologist who specializes in invasive plants, said he watched the Jesusita Fire of 2009 jump the Windy Gap, a large fuel break near the San Marcos Pass, “six or eight times.”

“You don’t protect from fire from the forest in; you protect from the structures out,” Dudley said. “It’s the embers that burn down houses, not the heat from the fire.”

Dudley’s wife, Carla D’Antonio, is a UCSB professor of environmental studies and an advisor for the San Marcos plan.

“There’s not a strong will to deal with issues other than clearing shrubland,” she said. “It’s easy to get grants to do that. It shows the public that you’re doing something. It’s kind of a statement about human domination of the landscape.”

For decades, the chaparral has been thinned on the hillsides around Painted Cave to create fuel breaks. The community is vulnerable to sundowner winds that race down canyons, making wildfires impossible to stop (Photo by Melinda Burns)

A house is dry fuel, too

No one disputes that Painted Cave is a tinderbox. The roads are poor and much of the community is tightly packed. Piles of firewood and dead tree trunks are lying around near homes. Many homes have wooden fences and decks and exposed wooden eaves. Some are old cottages with wood-shingle siding. There are carpets of pine needles and tall weeds in some yards.

All of the homes in Painted Cave have fire-resistant roofs, and many property owners have small private water tanks connected to hydrants. But the San Marcos plan gives 82 percent of the structures in the community a “low-defensibility” rating.

Seymour has his own fire hose that he can hook up to a neighbor’s swimming pool; they share a pump. Dudley and D’Antonio estimate that they have spent about $35,000 to retrofit their home; the biggest expense was the tempered glass windows and some fiber cement siding. Every two weeks, they clean out their gutters.

D’Antonio said she is not opposed to all fuel breaks, but, she asked, “How many do you need, and at what point do they degrade the environment?”

“It’s much harder to convince people they really need to pay attention to their own property, cut down their half dead trees and their eucalyptus, understand that their house is among the driest fuel on the landscape, and plan accordingly to make it less flammable,” she said. “People up here want to have these fuel breaks because it takes some of the responsibility off themselves.”

For Anne Eldridge, a homeowner who lives on the lower section of Painted Cave, where the road winds steeply uphill with many switchbacks, it’s a question of dollars and cents. She’d like to upgrade her sprinkler system and stucco her wood house. But Eldridge is retired and doesn’t have tens of thousands of dollars.

Meanwhile, the plan for protecting the San Marcos Pass communities could go up in smoke. Feelings have been hurt. The two sides have stopped talking. And the state is handing out $200 million this year in grants for forest thinning.

“Ultimately,” Hazard said, “what protects communities are firefighters.”


Melinda Burns is a freelance journalist based in Santa Barbara.

(Graphic design by Kristin Jackson)

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a-1568543683 Aug 20, 2018 08:08 PM
Saving Mountain Dwellers from Wildfire

The story of the Painted Cave arson: (LA Times archive, 3 pages, small button at bottom to go on to next page) http://articles.latimes.com/2000/nov/07/news/mn-48380 *************************************************************************************** there sure is a kicker in the story. He came in to a county office I was working at. I had to leave, handed him over to my coworker. *************************************************************************************** Spoiler: "In all probability, that would have been the end of the Painted Cave fire case, had Ross not sued the county over the search of his property. Frustrated county officials sued him right back for the costs of fighting the fire and the loss of county property." Funny, I loved those butterflies.

a-1568543683 Aug 20, 2018 07:54 PM
Saving Mountain Dwellers from Wildfire

But this is shocking. Homeowners are responsible for their homes! And their lives, of course. Sure, you can't afford 10K for siding. Gov't. help probably lowers costs overall. But -- look out for yourselves, take responsibility for living in an area that may well wipe you out, and might kill you! I'm in the city and have a resistant roof! **************************************************************************************************** "At the same time, the plan states that 42 percent to 86 percent of mountain homes and outbuildings, depending on which community they are in, fall into the category of “low defensibility” in a wildfire, meaning it would be hard for firefighters to save them, especially in sundowner conditions. Many residents have not replaced their wood shake roofs and siding, installed double-pane windows, placed ember-resistant screens over their attic vents, or even cleaned out their gutters, the plan notes. They haven’t removed wood fences and wood decks that can act as conduits for fire, or cleared a safe space around their homes."

pii Aug 19, 2018 08:18 AM
Saving Mountain Dwellers from Wildfire

Will brush clearing increase the chance of flooding? To what extent do fire breaks and clearing of vegetation alter habitats? Dead trees are used by many critters. Brush shields snakes, birds and you name it. Traipsing over steep hillsides to do the work of clearing speeds up erosion. Do we like seeing firebreak scars on the mountains?

a-1568543683 Aug 20, 2018 07:49 PM
Saving Mountain Dwellers from Wildfire

It may be hard even for insects to use over one hundred million dead trees in California, due to borer beetles and drought. Climate change and drought must be taken into consideration. I respect your points, it's a difficult issue. And we haven't even included the interplay of conditions and electric utilities. Everyone's pretty eager to blame them for not clearing as they should and could!

pii Aug 19, 2018 08:10 AM
Saving Mountain Dwellers from Wildfire

I live in a high fire area. I am sure experts would have a long list of tasks to do to minimize risks. I live in a forest. I don't want to cut down trees. I'll do what suits me. I come out here because it is natural. I like it that way. I won't blame my neighbor if his brush brings the fire to my house. I accept the risk. I have insurance (shared risk). I expect the fire fighters to do their job and to prioritize their safety. No more. BTW I plan to do some clearing today.

Flicka Aug 18, 2018 09:17 AM
Saving Mountain Dwellers from Wildfire

Seems fire has it's own agenda. In the Romero Fire, 1971, friends had a shack on Hidden Valley Lane near Montecito. It was wooden, built as an artist studio. Across the street was a new home with a sign, "Fire resistant". Guess which one burned. The studio had a big oak tree by the front door that burned but the studio was undamaged. Go figure!

MountainMan4865 Aug 17, 2018 11:26 PM
Saving Mountain Dwellers from Wildfire

I have a couple of issues with this article, as a long time 'mountain dweller'. First off, the picture of the blue structure with pile of dry brush next to it. Garage that needs to be painted with a cut brush pile waiting to be chipped by the Painted Cave Fire Dept. , which it was almost two weeks ago. For the seasoned campaigners up here, we're not looking to live with out care only to have someone come save us when need be. We are all acutely aware of where we're living and act accordingly. This argument is with the 'officials'. We know what we need to do, we've steeled ourselves for the Zaca fire, the Gap fire, the Jesusita fire, the Day fire (think there were a couple of those), the Tea fire, the White fire, the Whittier fire, the Lookout Fire, the Thomas fire... all in the last 10-12 years. That list doesn't include the dozens of other fires that could have been equally as dangerous. I must also point out that the Painted Cave Fire started close to the Trout Club, after the first catastrophic night, made its way part way up Painted Cave Rd, but never touched any home in our area, but we all paid dearly for the naming of the fire through our insurance and the unfortunate naming of the fire itself. I can not speak to all the communities on this list, but I can say that the one I live in is acutely aware of the danger and mitigate it as best we can. It's not for everyone. But if you like quiet and don't mind darkness, stars, or wildlife it's pretty alright.

yin yang Aug 20, 2018 07:43 PM
Saving Mountain Dwellers from Wildfire

I've missed your posts. Thanks for clarification. It's a difficult issue, I know where I stand -- which is no longer in the mountains! I wonder what Linthicum thinks of all this... Painted Cave fire started just above where I used to live. Every resident should have a water tank, as large as possible, as even a small rain event provides more water than you think, when it's stored. Hosing too of course. But if my friends had been home that day? No question they'd be dead.

biguglystick Aug 17, 2018 01:18 PM
Saving Mountain Dwellers from Wildfire

What really sucks is that I don't own a home. ANYWHERE because it has gotten ridiculously expensive. I'd give anything for even a shack up there, even if I was in high risk fire country. How lucky any of you are who own a home.

Flicka Aug 17, 2018 10:05 AM
Saving Mountain Dwellers from Wildfire

In the 1964 Coyote fire firemen from out of the county didn't know about homes in Painted Cave so they lit a backfire that burned houses up there. Our friends with their little kids came to stay with us. KEY-T announced "all homes in Painted Cave burned." Wow, we and our friends devastated. Luckily not all burned, our friends were some of the lucky ones. I think that's when PC residents decided to put together their own volunteer firefighters and even bought an old fire truck.

Coyote Dave Aug 17, 2018 09:12 AM
Saving Mountain Dwellers from Wildfire

It seems that a combination of more fire breaks, controlled burns, more fire fighters, and better fire suppression management of individual properties will provide the best odds for protection of our mountain communities (i.e., a multi-tiered approach). There's not a single fix all solution. It also seems that implementation of all of these measures would be cheaper than the cost of continually fighting these apocalyptic fires. Further, wouldn't the loss of habitat from creation of fire breaks/limited controlled burns be significantly less than the vast acreage of scorched earth that results from these fires. Lets not forget that the Chumash used controlled burns to maintain grass lands for hunting and foraging for thousands of years. I just hope all parties can reach some common ground on this issue. Litigation is not the solution.

visionmatters Aug 17, 2018 09:05 AM
Saving Mountain Dwellers from Wildfire

When I bought my home in the wildlands interface, I asked the chief of the closest station to come give me his opinion. He walked me to a view point about a hundred yards from my house and said "When, not if, this hill is burning, me or someone like me is going to stand right here and look at your house. If these things are still here" and then he gave me a list of the items that he deemed made my house indefensible, "we will let it burn". Over the next decade I lived there, I removed those items, and on the day the hill was burning, sure enough, that was exactly where I was standing when the engines rolled up. They told me to leave, and helped me close up my house and knock down my patio furniture, and as I drove away, I could see through the hedge that was between my property and the fire, four men with hoses laying water on the base of those flames that were 75 feet in the air. I thought there was no way they would stop that fire. And they didn't. But they held it off until the wind changed a half hour later and blew the wind west, where it destroyed 200 homes over the next five hours. The next morning my home, damaged somewhat, mostly the landscape, was still there, and my neighbors to the west, were a mix of post war apocalypse and miracles of survival. In a wild fire situation, you have to be both good and lucky. Hardening your house is no guarantee. But its what you can do. Having a gravity fed sprinkler wetting down your buffer area is pretty great, but only if you have no openings for embers in the structure. First responders can't make residents modify their property. Neighbors can only ask. Grants to execute may get things done. My neighbor, who was fortunately to the east, refused to let firefighters clear dead wood off her property. She kept a stack of firewood at the base of a window she covered with an old bedspread on the outside to keep the hot sun out of her living room. It was like she had built a kindling pile to help her house go up in flames. She had her reasons for the choice she made. It just seemed like she was ok with the risks. Her house is still there. Go figure. If you choose to live in that zone, this goes with the territory. Realtors should have a pamphlet that they have to have people read to buy into the area.

oceandrew Aug 17, 2018 08:47 AM
Saving Mountain Dwellers from Wildfire

Interesting that the folks up there who feel scientists have no expertise (reminds you of the conservatives denying climate change, huh?) are the first to expect govt to do all the work to protect them in their exclusive wildland-urban interface. I'd expect these conservatives to be just as determined to fortify their homes as expect govt to clear the fuel breaks.

s.b.ron Aug 17, 2018 08:06 AM
Saving Mountain Dwellers from Wildfire

What really sucks is when you have made your residence as fireproof as possible, and you have a neighbor who doesn’t give a rat’s patootie and his miserable mess of a house and rampant overgrown “landscaping” will burn you out in no time. Reported 3x to County fire and County fire did NOTHING!

a-1568543683 Aug 16, 2018 09:00 PM
Saving Mountain Dwellers from Wildfire

Shouldn't expect homes with low defensibility ratings to be protected heroically by firefighters. Their lives come first.

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