Last year, as the nation as a whole suffered its most severe wildfire season on record — with more than 10 million acres scorched, 4,500 homes destroyed, and 13 wildland firefighters dying in the line of duty — Los Padres National Forest, headquartered in Goleta, escaped relatively unscathed. Combined, Los Padres’ three most significant blazes — the Chorro, Cuesta, and Gibraltar fires — consumed just 2,749 acres, claimed one structure, and injured one firefighter. Regardless, they cost American taxpayers a pretty penny.
The 21-acre Gibraltar Fire alone cost more than $2 million, in large part due to extensive reliance on helicopters and airplanes to snuff the early morning act of arson before howling sundowners pushed it down-canyon toward Lotusland and the San Ysidro Ranch, among other pieces of prized Montecito real estate. August’s $1.6 million Chorro Fire, its cause still under investigation, burned 282 acres near Highway 33 north of Ojai. The Cuesta Fire, in San Luis Obispo County, which burned August 16-28, was thought to be sparked by chains dragging from a travel trailer and razed 2,446 acres. It cost nearly $16 million.
Nationwide, the U.S. Forest Service spent 52 percent of its $5.5 billion budget on wildfire suppression, making 2015 the most expensive fire season in history and three times more costly than fire season 20 years ago. “We take our job to protect the public seriously … and the job has become increasingly difficult due to the effects of climate change, chronic droughts, and a constrained budget environment in Washington,” said Tom Vilsack, secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service.
In other Los Padres news, the agency is making moves to relocate its Goleta headquarters to a Santa Ynez/Buellton vicinity more central in the forest, which stretches up along Big Sur well into Monterey County. Now on an extended lease to April 1, 2017, at a facility that costs nearly $500,000 annually, forest administrators recently identified a handful of potential sites in the Santa Ynez Valley that are more appropriately sized and affordable, according to forest spokesperson Andrew Madsen.
Compared with the South Coast, the cost of living in Santa Barbara’s North County is typically less expensive — which bodes well financially for forest staffers looking to relocate, and for ones already living there — the proposed move does complicate the forest’s easy access to UCSB and SBCC volunteers and collaborative government scientists stationed in southern Santa Barbara County, Ventura, and Los Angeles.