Santa Barbara Firefighters and Environmentalists Battle over Prevention Methods

Controlled Burns vs. Hard Houses: The Bickering Must Stop

Photo Credit: Mike Eliason, Santa Barbara County Fire Department
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I wasn’t in the room at the time, so I don’t really know what happened.

Had I been there, I still wouldn’t know. It’s doubtful you would either.

I’m referring tothe festering shit show now threatening to go radioactive between the firefighters and the enviros about how best to get ready for the inevitable next big ones. Given that fire season is now longer than football, basketball, and baseball seasons combined, this discord qualifies as a luxury we can all ill afford.

Giving rise to the latest installment of strife and dysfunction have been efforts to craft a Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) for the outer limits of Goleta and the San Marcos Pass. Such plans are required for various funding purposes. Required of such plans is “community collaboration.” In other words, people who’d rather cross the street than have to feign lack of eye contact actually have to sit around the table. In the San Marcos effort, this exercise in collective rictus lasted more than a year.

On one side was the every-stump-of-chaparral-is-sacred crowd. Emotionally, these people regard firebreaks as the work of Satan, analogous to graffiti scrawled across the courthouse. Intellectually, they argue firebreaks and controlled burns tend to be ecologically destructive, extremely expensive, and highly ineffective when it comes to actually protecting vulnerable structures. Resources would be much better spent, they insist, retrofitting homes in high-fire-risk zones to make them more fire-resistant and fireproof.

On the flip side are the firefighters, coming off the most physically harrowing, emotionally draining combat they’ve ever experienced: the Thomas Fire coupled with the Debris Flow from Hell. If people insist on occupying indefensible landscapes, the outer limits of rustic wonder, then firefighters need safe spaces carved and gouged into the hillsides where firefighters are likely to be dispatched. Eric Peterson, Santa Barbara County’s soon-to-be-retiring but hardly ever shy fire chief, put it delicately when he demanded nothing less than “big-ass” fuel breaks. Naturally, I couldn’t agree more with both sides.

According to the firefighters, the eco-warriors showed up late, left early, and never stated their concerns when time existed to actually address them. In other words, bad faith in the extreme. Then at the 11th hour and 59th minute, they stormed out, taking their ball and going home.

On the flip side, the eco warriors contend they got baited and switched. They showed up with the misapprehension that the new plan would focus as much on structure-ignition vulnerability issues ​— “​home hardening” for short ​— ​as it did on fuel management. Instead, they claim, they got a couple of pages of boilerplate advisory lingo cut and pasted into the document. Conspicuously lacking for their agenda was any funding. It was all, at least in their eyes, happy talk but zero action.

Caught in the middle, of course, was the squadron of pointy-headed intellectuals and scientists whose participation, it was hoped, would help shed light and illumination. They got their own noses seriously out of joint when an email written by some hot-headed firefighter besmirching their scientific integrity got leaked.

On any given Sunday, these are tough crowds from which to coax collaboration. Now throw into the mix the collective post-traumatic stress disorder we can safely assume is any firefighters’ neurons at the bargaining table. Add to that a warp-10, up-against-the-wall sense of urgency any eco warrior in the time of Trump must feel. Maybe both sides should be microdosed with psilocybin or some other trendy psychoactive compound now being used to reboot the soul for people facing death, destruction, and despair.

It can be done. State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, for example, authored one bill that opens the door to more controlled burns. It also gives fire departments authority to weigh in on planning issues for development in high-fire-risk zones. But Jackson also introduced a bill that creates a new funding stream to enable homeowners to finance the fire-prevention retrofits the enviros want.

Based on California’s most recent climate assessment ​— ​released this week ​— ​the innate variability of our temperature and precipitation patterns is about to get a whole lot more variable. Our dry periods are going to get more prolonged and violent. Our wet periods will be shorter and more violent. It will be the Pineapple Express versus the Blast Furnace. Under one scenario, the region’s average maximum temperature could go from its historic 68.6 degrees  ​— ​from 1961 to 1990 ​— ​to 75 by the end of the century. Likewise, the number of days we exceed temperature thresholds for “normal” could jump from 4.3 to 33. To paraphrase Bette Davis, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

This week, organizers of the Live Oak Music Festival announced they were moving their annual music extravaganza an hour north; their campgrounds on San Marcos Road will be needed, they explained, as a base camp for firefighters. In Lompoc, authorities are clearing camps of homeless people from the banks of the Santa Ynez River in part because there have been 28 fires there the past year, just three the past week. In September, a group of politically connected, privately funded, big-shoed bigwigs ​— ​Santa Barbara Independent investor and former publisher Joe Lee Cole among them ​— ​will go public with plans to place a series of giant steel hairnets over the steep creek channels that funnel water, mud, and boulders the size of barns down the slopes behind Montecito. Their hope is to get some “net curtains” installed before this winter’s anticipated El Niño rains can strike and trigger yet another avalanche of death and destruction.

Does this plan make any sense? Under what circumstances? Maybe we should talk.

Like I said, I wasn’t in the room when the argument exploded. But if we don’t get over it, it’s only a matter of time ​— ​but not much ​— ​before we no longer have a room in which to bicker.

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