From left: S.B. County Deputy Fire Marshal Rob Hazard, Division Chief Steve Oaks, and Fire Chief Mark A. Hartwig | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

Up the coast from Santa Barbara, the rural Gaviota hills are a crazy quilt of uses, from the 24,000-acre Dangermond Preserve to ExxonMobil’s Las Flores oil facility and the county’s landfill at Tajiguas, not to mention dozens of ranches and farms, the state beaches and campgrounds, and the major statewide artery known as Highway 101. These facts and more are contained in the Gaviota Community Wildfire Protection Plan, which examines the wildfire hazards from the shore to the mountain ridge and was approved by the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

The plan has been in the works since 2016, explained County Fire Marshal Rob Hazard, and involved not only the fire department but Gaviota neighbors who’d first banded together over the Refugio oil spill, agencies like state Fish & Wildlife and County Planning, as well as the federal Forest Service and Vandenberg Space Force Base, which lies at the plan’s western border. The major goals were to gain agreement on the sorts of fire mitigation everyone could get on board with, Hazard said, which meant listening to those who didn’t want to see large firebreaks plowed across the land and recognizing the importance of orchards and grazed land to fire defense. “We learned this during the Gap Fire behind Goleta, and those orchards saved Goleta,” Hazard said.

He emphasized that the plan does not define any projects, and it thereby avoids environmental review until the project phase. One purpose of plans like this is to document the buy-in from the community and also the groundwork done to identify issues in order to gain federal and state grants, more of which are becoming available. A CalFire grant for $196,000 funded this plan and a contractor to help pull it together.

Among the points the plan makes is that of the 106,000 acres in Gaviota, only one percent is within 100 feet of the defensible space that must be cleared around a structure in wildland areas; Gaviota contains roughly 1,300 structures. As for the vegetation, chaparral is considered “safe” up until about 30 years old, and sage scrub up to 15 years old — over that age, their flammability increases, said Scott Eckhardt, a forester with consultant Dudek. About 34 percent of the chaparral in Gaviota fit the flammability bill, and about 85 percent of the sage scrub. Of the 199 ignitions within the plan boundary from 2007-2020, Eckhardt added, 98.5 percent were human-caused, often in close correlation with roads.

The Gaviota Community Wildfire Protection Plan ranges across 106,000 acres of coastal Santa Barbara County. | Credit: Courtesy County of Santa Barbara

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