The Fire Next Time

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The Fire Next Time
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County Fire Chief Eric Peterson says the Holiday Fire fuel break stopped the fire, but at great risk to bulldozer operators. He favors creating a continuous fuel break in the front country from Montecito to Goleta (Photo: Melinda Burns)

By Melinda Burns

When the weather cooled down last week, offering relief from record 100-degree heat, Eric Peterson, the county fire chief, hiked into the foothills of Goleta to the spot where the Holiday Fire was halted on July 6 near the national forest boundary.

At about 10 p.m. that night off North Fairview Avenue, two county fire bulldozer operators, starting from opposite directions, demolished a swath of chaparral about 500 yards long and eight feet wide along a ridgeline and down steep slopes, punching out a “fuel break” to stop the fire. As the flames raced uphill, Peterson said, the men called in an aerial water drop “to keep themselves from getting incinerated.”

“These guys probably would have died, had that helicopter not been there,” Peterson said. “Keep in mind: It’s dark, they’re covered with smoke, there’s embers flying everywhere. They got drenched. But they were able to get in front of this fire and cut it off.”

Yet for all the success of their operation, Peterson is fed up with risking his men in bulldozers while fires explode around them. A native of Santa Barbara who grew up in chaparral country on West Camino Cielo, the blunt-spoken chief has become a vocal advocate for a project that environmentalists have long opposed – connecting a patchwork of 1960s fuel breaks, mountain roads and heat-absorbing avocado orchards to create a continuous (in Peterson’s words, “big-ass”) fuel break along the “front country” from Montecito to Goleta.

“It’s my people out there who are putting their lives on the line,” Peterson said. “I feel like I’m duty-bound to scream and yell. We have to be able to sacrifice a little bit of this chaparral – that we all love, that I grew up in, that I love the smell of, that I loved to roll around in – in order to save the rest of it.

“We should start looking at these things not as an ugly scar in the hills, but as a battlement, much as people in medieval times looked at walls against the invading hordes. That’s really what we’re dealing with.”

In sundowner winds on July 6, the Holiday Fire burned 20 structures, including 13 homes, in the area of North Fairview Avenue, near the boundary with the Los Padres National Forest. (Photo: Mike Eliason, Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

“Grinding up the vegetation”

The impact of the Holiday Fire fuel break is starkly obvious at a glance. On one side of it, perilously close to a hilltop estate, the ground is charred and stripped bare; on the other side, the landscape is green and brushy.

During sundowner winds of 40 miles per hour, the fire destroyed 24 structures, including 10 homes. Three additional homes were damaged. But the fuel break prevented the blaze from moving upslope into the national forest overnight, Peterson said. In typical sundowner fashion, it could have roared back down into the urban area the next day.

“We need more fuel breaks that can take some of the heat out of these fires and give us opportunities to fight them,” Peterson said.

But if Peterson is adamant in his support for such large-scale projects, Rick Halsey, director of the California Chaparral Institute, an Escondido-based research group, is an equally determined opponent of what he calls “grinding up the vegetation” to fight fires.

“We have to look at how we protect lives and property, not how we stop wildfires,” he said. “The problem is, we keep doing the same thing, over and over again.”

Halsey grew up on More Mesa, became a biologist, spent a stint as a firefighter, and has lectured about fire risk reduction at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. He believes it is more effective for residents to thin the vegetation right around their homes than it is to create fuel breaks miles away from them.

“How about trying to prevent the fire in the first place?” Halsey said. “I think everybody wants the same thing. It’s crazy we don’t sit down and figure out how to do it.”

According to Los Padres Forest Watch, a Santa Barbara-based preservationist group, the Thomas Fire of December, 2017, jumped a network of 70 miles of fuel breaks in the national forest around Ojai and Lake Casitas on its way to becoming the largest fire in California history.

Last year, Forest Watch and the Chaparral Institute filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service over its plans to create a fuel break six miles long and up to 300 feet wide along the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains on the Gaviota coast, effectively widening an old dirt road. The groups said the $150,000 project would destroy Refugio manzanita, a rare species found only in the Santa Ynez Mountains.

Two environmental groups sued the U.S. Forest Service over a proposal to widen this old road as a fuel break for six miles along the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains on the Gaviota coast. The opponents argued that it would destroy swaths of rare Refugio manzanita, shown here. The Forest Service canceled its plans last year (Photo by Rick Halsey)

The Forest Service eventually dropped its plans for Gaviota. But the agency is proposing to reestablish 24 miles of old fuel breaks in Monterey County, saying the project would protect several small communities, including Big Sur.

This spring, Halsey and representatives of Forest Watch, the Santa Barbara Urban Creeks Council, Sierra Club California and 15 other environmentalist groups sent a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown, urging him to shift tens millions of dollars in state funding slated for controlled burns and thinning out dead trees to tax rebates for fire-proofing homes.

“What we have been doing, trying to control the natural environment, is not working,” the groups wrote on May 16, pointing to last year’s devastating fire season, in which 45 lives were lost and 10,000 structures burned, including 12 in Montecito.

In Monrovia, Calif, residents approved a bond measure to buy up property in high-hazard fire zones, creating a wider urban-wildland buffer, the environmentalists noted. In Big Bear and Idyllwild, Federal Emergency Management Agency funds are helping homeowners replace their roofs with fire-safe materials and install ember-resistant attic vents.

“We must look at the problem from the house outward, rather than from the wildland in,” the letter to Brown stated, “… it will require a significant change in thinking.”

County Fire Chief Eric Peterson, shown here at a recent press conference, has urged local agencies to work together to create a continuous fuel break on the mountainside from Montecito to Goleta. (Photo by Mike Eliason, Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

Climate change and fire

On July 12, within days of the Holiday Fire, state and local fire officials outlined a dire scenario for California at an informational hearing on natural disaster response, convened at the Montecito Union School by state Assemblywoman Monique Limón and state Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, both Democrats from Santa Barbara.

In the shadow of the Thomas Fire, which triggered the catastrophic debris flow in Montecito on Jan. 9, killing 23, the mood in the school auditorium was somber.

“Climate change is changing the fire environment,” Tom Porter, chief of Cal Fire for Southern California, told an audience of about 75 people. He dismissed the term “new normal,” saying, “This is the normal.” There had been more fires in the past five years, Porter said, more than during any other five-year period in state history. Eight of California’s 20 most destructive fires have occurred in the past four years.

“Every acre can and will burn at some point,” Porter said.

Peterson spoke next, praising a new program that provides state funding for local agencies to strategically “pre-position” resources during the kind of hot, dry, windy Red Flag Warning weather that these days is virtually guaranteed to “pop a fire.” Two hours before the Holiday Fire, Peterson said, five extra fire trucks were staged at the corner of Hollister Avenue and Turnpike Road, allowing firefighters to respond more quickly when the blaze began.

“They were at work within minutes,” Peterson said. “That is an example of being nimble. It was extremely encouraging.”

But Peterson said there was “no time” for longer-term prevention measures during what is now a year-round fire season. Again, he made his pitch for a fuel break that would “connect the dots in the front country.”

“We’re always on fire, it seems like,” Peterson said. “The interval between these large catastrophic events is decreasing. We need to adapt to that. This is not a hump we’re going to get over. It’s not going to get better. We need a countywide fuel management working group, and we need to get a plan together.”

As the hearing drew to a close, Limón and Jackson highlighted a spate of bills that they have introduced in the state Legislature, including bills that would automatically enroll residents into county emergency alert systems; translate emergency communications into languages other than English; require insurance companies to cover losses from mudslides and debris flows triggered by wildfires, and bring together federal, state and local agencies to collaborate on forest management.

Another bill proposed by Limón would create a working group of representatives from state agencies, local government, academia, industry and non-profit groups to identify new ways to prevent fires. (Limón also introduced a bill that would have required insurers to participate in consolidated debris removal programs with homeowner consent; but it died in committee.)

“We will get through this,” Jackson assured the audience at Montecito Union. “It’s going to be tough, but heck, we’re Santa Barbara County.”

Melinda Burns is a freelance journalist based in Santa Barbara.

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SBZZ Jul 22, 2018 12:40 PM
The Fire Next Time

Chief Petersen, you are welcome to push your agenda, but cut out the scare tactics and misinformation. It is not a year round fire season – we are not always on fire – there is time for longer-term prevention measures – and no, we are not going to sink to medieval mentality. We should aggressively fight fires, but carving swaths of chaparral out of the forest to do so is not the answer. The proposed fuel breaks would be too costly to construct/maintain, would result in too many impacts, and most importantly, would be largely ineffective when needed most - during a wind-driven fire. I am a firm believer in climate change, but one reason there have been so many fires these last few years is not due to climate change but due to our drought of the last 7 years – and there have ones like this before - 1944-1951 for example. But it takes more than dry weather to start a fire – bad luck. Compared to say 30 years ago, there are so many more people out in the forest/living at its interface/powerlines-gas lines spread into it - many more opportunities for something to go wrong and to start fires. This is the “new normal” that is the big challenge – managing ourselves and our infrastructure. We need to seriously consider creative forms of preventative measures, like de-energizing powerlines that are in fire prone areas and experience high winds during extreme fire conditions. Thank you Forest Watch and the Chaparral Institute for protecting our natural forests.

a-1579287024 Jul 16, 2018 08:31 PM
The Fire Next Time

YES! Finally someone in government has the balls to lead and make the right decisions.

Shasta Guy Jul 16, 2018 06:06 PM
The Fire Next Time

Maybe as part of the plan we should eradicate eucalyptus trees in and near the chaparral zone. Those guys were a big part of the inferno of the Tea and Jesusita fires. Picturesque, but deadly. They go up like roman candles and can start lots of stuff on fire.. After the Tea or Jesusita fire, I had a charred eucalyptus branch in my backyard even though the closest fire was a mile away. I also had someone's charred siding in my yard.

a-1579287024 Jul 16, 2018 03:09 PM
The Fire Next Time

Fire breaks can and will save homes and property (and maybe even lives) long term. In many ways the term is a bit of a misnomer, as it implies that their purpose is solely to stop ("break") fires. In fact, in addition to providing a defensible space they are an invaluable tool for moving resources during a major fire event. I watched them carve up the side of the mountain next to 154 during the Thomas fire and am all for that fire break (and all others) being maintained.

chaparralian Jul 19, 2018 08:02 AM
The Fire Next Time

Fuel breaks sometimes work. They don't work when it matters most - during wind-driven wildfires.

a-1579287024 Jul 16, 2018 03:03 PM
The Fire Next Time

Interesting perspectives from Peterson who actually puts fires out, and Halsey who drives a desk: - Peterson: I am tired of risking the lives of my men. We need more fire breaks. - Halsey: Let’s just prevent the fires from starting.

chaparralian Jul 19, 2018 08:01 AM
The Fire Next Time

Hi. This is Rick Halsey. One of the best ways to discuss an issue is to discuss... the issue. Personal, ad hominem attacks diminish whatever point you might want to make. In addition, I don't know who you are, so I suspect you have no idea what I do. Now, back to the issue. You might want to do some research on how fuel breaks work or don't work, and what alternatives are available. Here is a good place to start: A couple other points to consider: - The Thomas Fire jumped over multiple prescribed burns and fuel breaks. - Fuel breaks would have had no impact on the loss caused by the Holiday Fire, contrary to what the chief implied. Go to Google Earth and examine the area. It is not wildland, but orchards, Eucalyptus, weeds, and houses.

a-1579287024 Jul 16, 2018 02:01 PM
The Fire Next Time

Not sure why everyone has been freaking out about the "lack" of alerts. I live 4 miles away from the fire and got one at 9 or so saying there was a fire, then another one at 12am or so saying to evacuate if in the area. Well, guess what I did after getting the alert to a wildfire at 9pm? I turned on the TV, saw there was a fire relatively close by and, out of caution, got out our "go box" from the Whittier and Sherpa fires. If you live in an area that could be impacted by wildfires, you shouldn't need minute by minute updates and hand-holding. You should know to be ready when there's a fire.

Potif Jul 16, 2018 09:10 PM
The Fire Next Time

PS... I have a flip cell phone and can't get my email on it. Can get texts. Still prefer a voice message, even if it is a recording.

Potif Jul 16, 2018 09:07 PM
The Fire Next Time

Thank you for the information. I didn't get either. Or, by cell or landline phone either. NOTHING! And, there are still some people who don't text or have email. Or, they might not have access to it for whatever reason. Cell phones can lose their charge, too. If one is not on their computer, and/or the power goes out, email doesn't help. Being ready for leaving the area of a fire, I agree with.... It helps to know there is one, though. That's why people are upset about not getting alerts right after the fire started, instead of MANY hours later!

a-1579287024 Jul 16, 2018 04:38 PM
The Fire Next Time

POTIF - both my alerts came on via text and email on my phone.

Potif Jul 16, 2018 04:37 PM
The Fire Next Time

Most people did not get ANY phone alerts until after midnight. About 12:25 AM. And, if you don't have TV, or radio (which would need to be on) or are asleep for whatever reason... An EARLY alert ( as you say you got? I hope over a phone line) can mean the difference between life and death. I never got even ONE!

a-1579287024 Jul 16, 2018 12:15 PM
The Fire Next Time

Did we ever receive a reason as to why very little people received the alerts they were supposed to during the Holiday Fire?

PitMix Jul 16, 2018 01:54 PM
The Fire Next Time

The fact is that heads will not roll, not for the "voluntary" evacuation zone of the Montecito Mudslide or for the nonwarnings during the Holiday Fire. There really is no accountability at any level of government for anything less than actual embezzlement of funds. And even then, it might be years before they catch you. Good work if you can get it.

oops Jul 16, 2018 01:51 PM
The Fire Next Time

If the Mgr was truly working from home, would have had the password. Otherwise, just another gov't employee sitting at home getting full pay. Perhaps didn't want to lower the vacation accrual so "I'm working from home" today. This could have been catastrophic for many more people. Why hasn't this city employee's name been released - LETS HAVE A NAME!

oops Jul 16, 2018 01:51 PM
The Fire Next Time

If the Mgr was truly working from home, would have had the password. Otherwise, just another gov't employee sitting at home getting full pay. Perhaps didn't want to lower the vacation accrual so "I'm working from home" today. This could have been catastrophic for many more people. Why hasn't this city employee's name been released - LETS HAVE A NAME!

oops Jul 16, 2018 01:51 PM
The Fire Next Time

If the Mgr was truly working from home, would have had the password. Otherwise, just another gov't employee sitting at home getting full pay. Perhaps didn't want to lower the vacation accrual so "I'm working from home" today. This could have been catastrophic for many more people. Why hasn't this city employee's name been released - LETS HAVE A NAME!

a-1579287024 Jul 16, 2018 12:26 PM
The Fire Next Time

I understand the alerts did not go out for two reasons: 1) Manager was working from home and forgot his passwords, and 2) the alert system had not been updated to use the 805 area code for local numbers. You cannot make this $hit up. Surely heads will roll... /sarc

Factotum Jul 16, 2018 12:11 PM
The Fire Next Time

City just agreed to allow ADU's in the high fire zones, bringing in even more people, cars and congestion on their narrow roads, which all increased the chances of more tragic fire events. That is what appeasing the pro-growth, development god looks like.

a-1579287024 Jul 16, 2018 11:00 AM
The Fire Next Time

Goleta Holiday Fire, Beth Farnsworth, wanted to find a hose to put out a small fire in front of an unburned house. I'm going to leave a hose (maybe put glow tape on it) in front of my house in the event of the next fire. You're welcome to have a go at it. And, thanks in advance, for being brave! I'm not brave, and will already be evacuated.

oceandrew Jul 16, 2018 10:42 AM
The Fire Next Time

How did the proposal for an 8ft wide fire break proposed by Eric Peterson turn into a Forest Service proposed 300 ft wide break along the S. Ynez Mountains crest of the Gaviota coast that the enviros are suing to stop? That is not "effectively widening an old dirt road". Was it meant to read 30ft? Was it a typo or just an example of the extreme proposals that makes such issues so controversial and polarizing?

a-1579287024 Jul 16, 2018 10:22 AM
The Fire Next Time

The Sheriff can keep you from coming back into an area where your home is located, but can't force you to leave your home. As for risky equipment guidelines, how about they must have fire extinguishers at the site being cleared? Or wearing a fire extinguisher in a backpack, for easy reaching to put out the first few inches of a fire.

Z Jul 16, 2018 02:08 PM
The Fire Next Time

Law requires a fire extinguisher on site whenever power equipment is being used in the bush.

BillyBoy Jul 16, 2018 10:19 AM
The Fire Next Time

Seems several recent fires have been started by folks using risky equipment in vulnerable areas. I wonder if we should be thinking about creating some guidelines, enforceable with fines. Some activities should have specific precautions. Using flammable materials or tool that are capable of initiating damaging wildfires should receive some focus.

a-1579287024 Jul 16, 2018 10:18 AM
The Fire Next Time

The sheriff can't force you out. If you feel strong enough to stay and fight embers, do so. If not, don't. It's scary, and I wouldn't stay myself, but thankful to those people who can fight back.

a-1579287024 Jul 16, 2018 10:09 AM
The Fire Next Time

People with swimming pools can get fire fighting pumps. Fire protection stored-water tanks and us getting out there and putting out embers to stop a fire spreading into the neighborhood, a good start at self-reliance.

chaparralian Jul 19, 2018 08:05 AM
The Fire Next Time

Excellent point. Also, external sprinklers can be incredibly effective and would have likely prevented the lost during the Goleta Holiday Fire. Some great suggestions here:

a-1579287024 Jul 16, 2018 10:14 AM
The Fire Next Time

If we're getting evacuated when the fire is close enough that embers are hitting our homes, then how are we supposed to put out the embers? I'm all for protecting my home, but not too excited about being dragged out by a Sheriff while trying to do so.

PitMix Jul 16, 2018 09:59 AM
The Fire Next Time

If the Thomas Fire winds threw embers a mile ahead of the main front, is Peterson proposing fire breaks a mile wide along our entire front range? At some point the people living in these wildland interface areas are going to have to realize that they are at continuous risk now, and may not be able to continue living there. Perhaps the insurance companies will make the decision for them by raising rates after they get tired of the payouts. Local government really needs to think hard about approving new development in these areas.

smary Jul 16, 2018 09:55 AM
The Fire Next Time

Chief Patterson I can't imagine your anger and frustration! It's time to accept our new reality and do everything possible to minimize the damage of the inevitable firestorms to come. Seems as if #1 concept would be the sooner it's stopped (AT THE SOURCE) the less damage done. Experience has shown by the time we have raging windblown firestorms individual homeowner mitigation measures have little to no effect. Lip service aka "Thank You firefighters" is hardly enough while refusing to allow firebreaks which could provide access and assist in stopping the monster fires which have become our new reality.

chaparralian Jul 19, 2018 08:12 AM
The Fire Next Time

Fuel breaks were generally ineffective during the Thomas Fire because of the wind. The recent Holiday Fire was also a wind-driven event. Take a look at Google Earth of the area burned in Goleta. The area was composed of homes, orchards, Eucalyptus and weedy grasses. Even if you wanted to put a fuel break in the area, it would have been unrealistic to do so. The tragic loss of homes in Ventura during the Thomas Fire and in Goleta during the Holiday Fire was the result of poor development planning (placing homes in harm's way) and wind driven embers, not the lack of fuel breaks. The best way to protect a home from wildfire is not by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars grinding up the wildlands, but by focusing on the house itself. Here are some excellent suggestions that can help you do that:

a-1579287024 Jul 16, 2018 09:46 AM
The Fire Next Time

Putting out an ember or two is much easier than putting out a fire engulfing the home, wherever it is, even More Mesa. In wildfires, the homes generally burn from the first few embers allowed to take hold. If the fire department can't make it to your home, are you capable of dousing embers? From L.A. Times article: Wind-Driven Glowing Embers Pose a Greater Threat to Homes than Fire Itself: "...greatest threat to houses during wildfires isn't a blast of flame, but a shower of fiery embers. Embers can be as small as a pinhead or as large as a flying sheet of plywood. Winds can toss them a mile or more ahead of a wildfire. After the main flame front moves on, burning debris continues to spit them out. The main body of the fire will stay at a house a few minutes, no more than 10....The ember shower can last for 30 minutes or more before the fire and two hours or more after the fire has passed. The glowing fragments blow through house vents and pile up in attics like tiny smoldering snowdrifts. They nestle under the eaves, on decks and in roof corners." Water, sand, dirt, mops, shovels, hoses, heavy boots to stomp on embers...all tools for individuals who are self-reliant.

a-1579287024 Jul 16, 2018 10:20 AM
The Fire Next Time

We're hearing some interesting stories from Holiday fire about self reliant neighbors that didn't evacuate. They're keeping a low profile so I won't out them. But those guys get huge props from their neighbors.

smary Jul 16, 2018 10:16 AM
The Fire Next Time

hard to be self reliant if you are law abiding and have evacuated

a-1579287024 Jul 16, 2018 09:36 AM
The Fire Next Time

Concur that this is another great article by Burns. The focus of the article is clearly on public lands where the fire breaks are most effective. But what about private land that sits between public lands and residential neighborhoods? There is tremendous pressure to develop these plots. Where do Port, Jackson, and Limon stand on the issuance of permits to build more homes in our foothills?

oops Jul 16, 2018 09:24 AM
The Fire Next Time

As a long term resident before the Painted Fire, I agree with the idea of creating a continuous firebreak to protect Carp to Goleta. I don't believe this fire break would have prevented the Holiday fire home destruction as this fire was below the proposed break.

chaparralian Jul 19, 2018 08:16 AM
The Fire Next Time

You are correct. The Holiday Fire was a classic wind-driven event, as was most of the Thomas Fire. Neither were able to be controlled through previous fuel breaks or prescribed burns. The homes were placed in harm's way and had no defense against embers. Addressing these two issue is where we need to focus our energy. Here are some great suggestions to do that:

RHS Jul 16, 2018 09:03 AM
The Fire Next Time

Another excellent article from one of the only real journalists left in the community. Nice to hear an exposition of the arguments from both sides. Nice also to not hear pejoratives hurled at the other side. I have often wondered if fire breaks worked or were not more designed to facilitate rapid movement of the firefighters, etc. Certainly we all need to keep our immediate yards and land cleared but who is responsible for the forest/chaparral which we want to keep natural? Maybe we just need to move people out of and back from such environments and stop the selling of inroads into such places by the wealthy who can pay for such engineering and lobbying?

a-1579287024 Jul 16, 2018 05:03 AM
The Fire Next Time

Self-reliance; have more . We should not rely on just firefighters to address this problem.

a-1579287024 Jul 16, 2018 10:47 AM
The Fire Next Time

Right and should also require police/sheriffs to deal less with law enforcement yet demand everyone be sufficiently self reliant (armed to the teeth) in that aspect as well. How about food, water, trash/waste disposal? Should those services also require more self reliance?

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