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Whittier Fire Point / Counterpoint


Dear Ms. Sara Von Schwind (Deputy District Director of Program/Project Management, Caltrans),

The Whittier Fire started at the side of Highway 154 recently. Due to a lack of adequate clearing of weeds and brush along the highway, numerous fires spread from the road’s edge every year. This year the Caltrans maintenance crew has done minimal clearing although a 10-foot buffer is prescribed by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. I assume this lack is due to inadequate funding. Now an expensive air and ground assault on the fire is being waged.

Why is it such a low priority to fund an adequate clearing next to the highway when exhaust systems of hundreds of cars and trucks are inches away from flammable material? Who is the person who can do something to change this situation? Please respond to me because in the several years I have tried to influence the authorities to rectify this problem I have had no success. Our homes in San Marcos Pass are presently threatened by this fire which might have been prevented.

Lee Chiacos, Vegetation Manager, San Marcos Trout Club

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Dear Mr. Lee Chiacos,

The information I have is that the fire was started by a vehicle on Camp Whittier property. Hopefully the investigation will be able to determine the origin of the Whittier fire.

This year’s mowing operations were started earlier than in the past; the plan was to take some of the fuel earlier in the season. There are pros and cons to this practice.

Earlier mowing under some cases allows for regrowth, necessitating additional mowing, a situation we are prepared to address.

As to the inadequate mowing done, we always mow as far as our equipment can reach safely. In many locations it’s in exceedance of our mowing guidelines; we do this to further minimize the fire potential.

This season, as in past seasons, one of our mowers rolled over while attempting to mow a steep slope. We have to balance the work with the safety of our employees.

Our Department’s priority to prevent fires from vehicles on the highway is high on our list of priorities. We have heeded your suggestions and requests for prioritizing certain locations with increased potential for fire.

Anytime you or other local departments have offered joint operations to enhance brush clearing we have participated.

Please keep in mind, our concern is not only with the 154 corridor but all corridors within the Santa Barbara area where other communities could be affected the 192, 144, 101, 001, 217, 246, 150. We prioritize our efforts to address the fire concerns of all these communities.

A fine balance between aesthetic natural scenery and safe interaction with vehicles and people has to be found to truly prevent this type of events from occurring. Finding this balance is challenging. Environmental, political, budgetary constraints exist; these are issues that State, County, local entities have to find solutions to that everyone will agree with.

Martin Sanchez, Maintenance Manager, District 5, South Region, Caltrans



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