Santa Barbarans awoke last Sunday morning to visions of the apocalypse – or at least a lot of nasty ash generated by a large fire in Los Padres National Forest. By midweek, winds had died down and smoke from the blaze had dissipated. The Day Fire – so named because it started on Labor Day weekend – unexpectedly doubled in size last weekend, burning over 85,000 acres and coming within seven miles southeast of Lockwood Valley, near Ojai. No structures had been reported burned by Tuesday, though the fire had incinerated a condor sanctuary in the Sespe Wilderness. With the fire 20 percent contained Wednesday morning, and Santa Ana winds expected to resume on Friday, the Los Padres was closed to the public in Kern, Ventura, and southern Santa Barbara counties. Fire service investigators have determined that human activity started the Day Fire; the investigation into who caused it and how is ongoing.

While water districts across the South Coast have been increasing water rates for their agricultural customers – or trying to – the City of Santa Barbara just cut the rate it charges such customers by 10 percent, decreasing the average ag water bill by about $130. Even so, Santa Barbara’s 71 ag users – mostly avocado growers – still pay more for water than their counterparts in other districts. This cut will reduce revenues for the water department, which enjoys an annual budget of $26 million, by $9,000. The city council approved a 3.5 percent increase in general water rates earlier this year.

The endangered California sea otter got a reprieve from water pollution, disease, and poachers this week. On Monday, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill enhancing protections for the sea otter population, which has been threatened by oil spills, encounters with fishing gear, habitat degradation, and food resource limitation resulting from pollution. The bill was authored by Dave Jones (D-Sacramento) and John Laird (D-Santa Cruz).

San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace (MFP) – a nuclear watchdog organization – filed a motion with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission asking the federal agency to suspend Pacific Gas & Electric’s (PG&E) license to oversee the installation of dry cask storage for spent nuclear fuel at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. The MFP objects to PG&E’s decision to install the casks without first conducting an environmental impact review. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the MFP on September 6; PG&E reportedly plans to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has refused to recognize the 9th Circuit’s ruling.

Santa Barbara Assemblymember Pedro Nava blasted plans to construct a liquefied natural gas facility off the coast of Long Beach, charging the facility would emit 25 million tons of greenhouse gases each year. Nava argued that building the LNG plant would fly in the face of the recently passed law to restrict greenhouse gas emissions in California. He also argued that the facility would put too many people at risk in the event of an explosion. LNG supporters insist the technology is safe, and that a new plant would make state residents less vulnerable to shortages and attendant cost spikes. Nava’s wife, Susan Jordan, is a well-known environmental activist leading the charge against LNG plants in California.

Attorney Mary Ellen Barilotti of Los Olivos won a showdown in federal court against the U.S. Forest Service that Santa Barbara forest activists hope will set a precedent for Los Padres National Forest, where the controversial Adventure Pass has been required of visitors for more than a decade. Barilotti – whose client was ticketed for parking her car beside a road in a national forest in Arizona without a pass – argued that the latest federal rules limit the collection of pass fees to areas that have been substantially improved, like campgrounds and picnic areas. The judge agreed, arguing that a maintained trail – on which Barilotti’s client was hiking – did not fall into that category. Forest Service officials, who rely on forest pass revenues, plan to appeal the ruling.

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