It started out as a showdown between outgoing Fire Chief Eric Peterson and two prominent Santa Barbara environmental organizations; county supervisors, however, quickly turned Tuesday’s board discussion into a political awakening of sorts, voicing their support for what Supervisor Peter Adam described as an “all of the above” approach to fire prevention. “There’s just no greater duty that we have,” added Supervisor Joan Hartmann.
Although no formal action was taken, the supervisors expressed support for a host of approaches, including burning up to 1,000 acres a year in what are known as controlled, or prescribed, burns, a practice as logistically problematic as it is environmentally controversial. Prescribed burns were common in Santa Barbara County up until the 1980s, with about 10,000 acres a year going up in controlled smoke, according to County Fire Marshal Rob Hazard.
The intent of such burning is to create a large patchwork of burned-over areas that can effectively slow down or stop the advance of any fires raging nearby. The challenge has always been, as Hazard put it, “keeping the genie in the bottle.” Prescribed burns have been known to get out of control, leaving government agencies on the hook for significant damages. Environmentalists have opposed prescribed burns, arguing they inflict lasting damage to the wildland eco-system without providing additional safety to human populations. The limited resources available should be directed, they’ve argued, to clearing brush and vegetation away from homes and into making built structures more fire resistant.
This argument came to a head earlier this year when representatives from the Urban Creeks Council and Los Padres ForestWatch abruptly resigned from a collaborative effort to create a new Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) for San Marcos Pass and the Eastern Goleta Valley. Three scientists serving on an advisory committee signed a letter objecting that their concerns and expertise were not being taken seriously by fire officials. A CWPP is necessary for local fire agencies to apply for state and federal grants. That plan remains still in draft form, though it could be adopted as soon as October 30.
Fire Chief Peterson — about to retire after 31 years with the department — remains raw from the devastation inflicted by last year’s Thomas Fire and this year’s January 9 debris flow. With only a few days left on the job, Peterson took Tuesday’s meeting to impress upon the supervisors the seriousness of future fire threats imposed by changing climate realities. “We lost 25 people, over 1,000 homes, almost 300,000 acres of chaparral and all of the habitat with it,” Peterson stated. “We have a much more urgent need to take preventative measures,” he said, predicting Carpinteria and Montecito could find themselves evacuated again this winter, depending on the rains. He blistered the two environmental groups that walked out of the fire protection plan talks, stating, “The fire service does not have the luxury of walking away.”
Peterson then yielded the podium to Hazard and sat by as Hazard delivered a detailed treatise on long-term and short-term preventive measures. In addition to fuel breaks in the backcountry and along the mountain ridges, Hazard argued for more fire-safety inspections. Currently, 14,000 homes are mandated for such inspections, but with more stringent new reporting requirements, the department could only manage 6,000 this year. Hazard also stressed the importance of maintaining the protective greenbelt offered by the orchards in Goleta and Carpinteria. But there are gaps — about 283 acres’ worth — that need to be plugged. Cattle grazing, he noted, provides the largest swath of fuel reduction; goats, able to get to inaccessibly steep terrain, can help more. Vegetation along roadways needs more pruning. Automobiles, he noted, are the number one cause of wildfires in Santa Barbara.
Speaking for ForestWatch were Jeff Kuyper, Rebecca August, and Bryant Baker. They stressed their heartfelt appreciation for the heroics of firefighters. To the extent controlled burns work at all, they argued, they work only in traditional pinion forests, not in chaparral. Homes should be retrofitted with fire-resistant materials, exterior wood replaced, and access points for wind-swept embers blocked off. They said they agreed with many of the proposals put forth by Hazard and the community committee, just not those having “no basis in science.” They added that “false rhetoric” cheapened the public discourse.
For environmentally minded supervisors Das Williams and Hartmann, especially, ForestWatch’s defection from the planning talks proved problematic. Hartmann suggested that a more robust discussion of home-hardening approaches should have been included in the CWPP. Williams said the “home hardening” rhetoric by ForestWatch might have been a “red herring,” but he pointed out that the group never sued the county to stop any projects. That, he suggested, was a sign of “goodwill.” Adam took exception to Williams’s characterization of goodwill, adding that the lessons from the Thomas Fire should be obvious to everyone. “Life is suffering; that’s part of it,” Adam sermonized. “The other part of it’s ‘Don’t be stupid.’”