About four miles up Winchester Canyon Road from its intersection with Cathedral Oaks Boulevard, the green ranks of M.J. Cavaletto’s citrus and avocado orchards open abruptly to a view of fire-scarred foothills. Twisted charcoal trunks punctuate the surrounding gray-white, black, and reddish-brown smears that glower over the small ranches perched farther up the box canyon.
It is an ominous scene today, but it was a ring out of Dante’s Inferno during the nights of the Gap Fire’s fury in early July. Organic avocado rancher Bryan Mitchell, who owns some of the canyon adjacent to the Cavalettos, had 75 percent of his Haas trees devoured by the flames – most of the 40 acres he calls the Triangle “S” Ranch. Other small, neighboring farms were also badly damaged.
Private agricultural lands fringe the southern slopes of the Santa Ynez range below the Los Padres National Forest boundary, crossing all seven watersheds involved in the Gap Fire. County fire officials credited orchards and cattle ranching areas, and the weather, with helping them halt the flames before they spread to the urban zone.
“The fire was actually almost completely stopped when it hit some of these orchards,” said County Fire Department Capt. Eli Iskow in an Independent article of July 10. “It would be a great plan to put orchards all through fire country.”
Avocado trees do well on hillsides, pointed out Felix Gomez, manager of Agricultural Lands Services, which oversees 3,000 acres of Bishop Ranch north of Cathedral Oaks and the adjacent 555-acre Rancho del Ciervo. Though his company lost a total of nearly 1,000 acres to the fire – only 75 were planted with avocados – he calls the orchards “a buffer” for the City of Goleta. “We were actually pretty lucky,” he said, considering that the width of the fire closely matched the city’s east-west borders.
About 9,500 charred acres – much of it once anchored by chaparral 15 to 20 feet high – have been the focus of U.S. Forest Service, city, and county flood control teams since the Gap Fire’s suppression was announced on July 28. Erosion and debris slides are major concerns this winter with the loss of so much of the watersheds’ plants and scorching of the steep slopes. Forest Service experts have estimated as much as 300,000 cubic yards of sediment and debris could flush down the canyons into parts of Goleta.
In a 100-year scenario, federal experts predict flooding of the Santa Barbara Airport, much of Old Town, and parts of Fairview Avenue near the 101 Highway, among other sites. “Unfortunately, that scenario assumes full plant growth on the watersheds and no obstacles under bridges and in culverts,” noted Steve Wagner, Goleta community services director. A meeting to help local businesses and residents prepare for possible flooding has been set for 11 a.m. on Thursday, October 9 at City Hall.
Because the top half of the burned area is within the National Forest, the Forest Service began on September 24 limited aerial spraying of a soil-restoring, organic paper-and-wood fiber compound called hydromulch over more than 1,500 acres. “We are treating high-risk areas that sustained high and moderate burn severity on slopes up to 60 percent,” explained District Ranger Cindy Chojnacky in a prepared statement. “There are no effective treatments for slopes steeper than that.”
The airport, where county flood control crews have cleared four large sediment basins, expects up to 250 take-offs and landings each day by six small hydromulch spray planes. A Skycrane helicopter will operate from a temporary base near Highway 154.
After the selected forest lands are coated, the same contractor will treat burned county and private lands. However, owners must give their permission. “We are highly recommending that farmers participate in the aerial hydromulching treatment,” said John Bechtold, district conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. After contacting owners of 70 percent of the burned private land, Bechtold said most have agreed to the mulching, and “all have started or are planning other measures. The ag folks are stepping up to the plate and doing what they can.”
Mitchell, who had no insurance coverage, reported that he lost two feet of mulch to the fire and is grinding up his dead trees stumps as replacement. Straw bales and seeding grasses will provide his main defenses against erosion.
Covering the private and public zones with green hydromulch is estimated to take 40 to 60 days, depending on the weather, say Goleta and airport public officials.
In the meantime, local officials urge homeowners and residents to check out the flood and burn zone maps on the county’s Web site. If you live near major watershed creeks, 16 miles of which have been hand-cleared to facilitate drainage, it might be prudent to have flood insurance and to stockpile sandbags.
So far, Fire Station 14, on Los Carneros Road near Stow House, is Goleta’s only designated sandbag supply depot.