Living in the Line of Wildfire

Info on Defensible Space from Montecito Firefighters

Wildland Fire Specialist Maeve Juarez, Montecito Fire
Paul Wellman

Making a home in the foothills along the South Coast of Santa Barbara, particularly Montecito, clearly has its upside: long views across the city and sea; a steeply rugged backdrop of sandstone peaks; and all of it soaked in Mediterranean microclimates approaching perfection. Every year, however, as days get dry and winds pick up, we’re reminded that not all is perfect in paradise. That same mix of enchanting climate and landscape is also home to the region’s most common natural disaster: wildfire.

Fortunately, greater Santa Barbara has some of the best multiagency firefighting cooperation in the state, if not the country. On October 29, 2015, in the canyons above Montecito, for example, the early-morning Gibraltar Fire ​— ​driven by hot winds gusting to 40 mph ​— ​lived a very short life as crews from Montecito Fire Protection District, Santa Barbara County Fire Department, the U.S. Forest Service, and other agencies contained the blaze to just 21 remote acres of chaparral before it had a chance to race down-slope, where it would have mounted a very serious threat to San Ysidro Ranch, Lotusland, and billions of dollars’ worth of surrounding real estate. More recently, in a natural disaster that still haunts recent memory, an unprecedented firefighting response held the line against the Thomas Fire as it threatened Santa Barbara after traveling 40 miles from its starting point in Santa Paula.

Not only does this G&C project conform to California’s strict building code for homes within Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones, but its closely cropped, succulent-rich landscaping provides an extra buffer against wildfire

Certainly, homes built to code ​— ​stucco and tile, tempered glass and sprinklers, and with little to no exterior wood, for starters ​— ​are made to fend off super-high temperatures and deadly embers. As Montecito is home to many of our all-new estates and extensive renovations, Giffin & Crane is keenly familiar with California’s strict building code in aptly named Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones. Above and beyond building code, however, exists another layer of protection homeowners are bound to follow: maintaining defensible space around their homes.

“We have several programs designed to assist property owners,” said Wildland Fire Specialist Maeve Juarez with Montecito Fire Protection District. “One program allows us to bring in fire crews to remove flammable vegetation around structures and remove dead trees from [a] property that could cause access [and] egress issues if they were to fall.”

Like building a fire-resistant home, creating and maintaining these important buffers isn’t cheap. Fortunately, added Juarez, Montecito Fire “works really hard to ensure that everyone is not only educated in fire prevention but also has the ability to accomplish defensible space. Often we encounter property owners who simply do not meet compliance because they cannot physically do the work or afford to pay someone to do it for them. We will always work with property owners to ensure that the work is completed, because even one property [lacking] defensible space can affect the surrounding properties.”

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