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Weed Whacker Firecracker

Should Steel Blades Be Banned in Wildlands?


I’ve said before that Santa Barbara is a city of synchronicity, and I’ll say it again.

The other day I walked into the middle of a conversation at the UPS store on upper State. On my left, it turns out, was Gregory Hyman, owner of Cornerstone Landscapes. On my right, Michael Vilkin, whose house was destroyed in the 2009 Jesusita Fire. The subject: How to stabilize steep land after a fire. I was standing right between them as the topic volleyed back and forth. I’m not always the quickest to pick up clues from the cosmos, but this one was hard to ignore. “Hey!” it said. “Wake up! This is a column!”

Jeff Miller

Vilkin and husband Steven Wright live on Holly Road, off Tunnel, in a house they had finished rebuilding in 2008. They were out of town on May 5, 2009, when calls about the fire began coming in from friends and employees. The parents of both Vilkin and Wright had died recently and lots of treasures were inside to be salvaged. Also, Vilkin, a former contractor, is a fine-art painter who exhibits at Gallery Los Olivos. So, more treasures. The theme of the calls: Do you want us to break into your house? “I said yes to everyone, but the police had already closed Tunnel Road,” Vilkin said.

The firefight also had its frustrations, including burnt-out pumps that prevented hydrant spraying. Eventually, those neighbors who remained and even a few firefighters had to take shelter in a house that the fire skipped. One resident had to crawl to it to stay under the smoke.

In the end, 12 of the 24 homes on Holly, including the Vilkin/Wright house, were torched.

Most of those 12 have been rebuilt, but the question remains: how to stabilize steep ground post-fire.

Hyman, on my left at UPS, said in a later interview that the idea of neighbors banding together to do an overall stabilization project is a good one. “It would reduce the cost and increase the efficacy of work,” he said.

The best time to stabilize is right after a fire, Hyman said, before rain (should there ever be any) can cause mudslides. Typically, jute netting is placed over young plants to help them hold their ground until roots are deep enough to do the job. The best plants for the job are native perennial grasses, which are deep rooting and need little water. The disadvantage, said Hyman, is that they’re slow-growing, so more aggressive Mediterranean plants are employed for midterm stability. Succulents are also effective on flat landscapes, since they need little water and yet feature low flammability. But some people might not want a whole hillside of succulents, he noted.

And speaking of flammability, we got to wondering why weed-trimmers with steel blades are allowed in wildfire areas. “They should make some kind of carbide blade that wouldn’t spark,” Hyman said. “They should be mandated.” We briefly considered going into business to create them.

Why are steel blades allowed in wildlands? The Jesusita Fire, for example, torched 8,733 acres, destroyed more than 80 structures, cost $35 million to fight, and injured 30 firefighters. Cause: a spark from the metal blades of a weed-whacking machine hitting a rock. Three years later, Stihl Inc., which made the whacker, settled a civil lawsuit brought by 60 of the burnt-out homeowners for an undisclosed amount.

Fire and whackers seem to coincide with some frequency. On July 2 of this year a small blaze off Spyglass Ridge Road in Mission Canyon was doused quickly, thankfully. Cause: hot weed whacker set in dry grass.

On May 31 of this year, another small firewhacker was quickly contained in Santa Rosa.

In its warnings, the California Wildland Fire Coordinating Group advises, “Metal blades striking rocks can create sparks and start fires. Use caution.”

“When clearing dead or dying grass, don’t use a lawn mower or weed trimmer with a metal blade,” urges the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in its annual Wildfire Awareness Week in May.

And so on. Seems like banning steel blades might be a good idea in these parts. I asked Captain Dave Zaniboni, public information officer of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, about it. “Sure, but people use them in a large industrial way, not always in wildland areas,” he said. “I wouldn’t know where to go. It would have to be legislative.”

Roger that. Your thoughts, legislators?



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