Firefighters race against the clock before the window for controlled burns closes in April for Santa Barbara County.

The popular Figueroa Mountain Road recreational area has an overly abundant fuel load, but the plan to mechanically chip vegetation in January was shelved due to a 35-day government shutdown and subsequent winter rains. Now forest management will reduce the hazards posed by dead and dying vegetation by fighting fire with fire. 

With hundreds of tons of “duff” per acre, firefighters face a lot of work. The light and highly flammable fuel dries out quickly, and it becomes volatile when the relative humidity drops and winds fan a fast-moving fire.       

Los Padres National Forest Service firefighters prioritize cutting branches off fallen trees, those eight inches in diameter and smaller, forming piles 10 feet wide. They use a gas mixture and drip torches to ignite each mound.

Just a few days ago, the air was so cold and the cuttings so green that leaf blowers were required to keep the fire alive. No such trouble after last weekend’s temps, which reached the low 80s on Figueroa Mountain Road. The perimeter of each of the approximately 30 individual burn piles, covered in five-inch-deep blankets of dried leaves, are scraped to mineral earth to help containment. Firefighters stood by with water hoses to slow aggressive growth and stray embers.

The work completed March 14 represents about 2 percent of what the Forest Service  would like to clear. Time is running out.  A few showers fell today, but April is when the rain truly dries up and all prescribed burns must stop. 

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