Los Padres ForestWatch says conducting prescribed burns and carving fuel breaks are a waste of time and money that would be better spent on fire-hardening homes and communities.

The nonprofit advocates simple, but not necessarily inexpensive, steps homeowners can take to make their houses more resistant to wildfires.

Bryant Baker, conservation director for ForestWatch, said the U.S. Forest Service Fire Science Laboratory has found 95% of homes that burn don’t do so because the wildfire burns right up to the house.

They burn because embers get inside the home, either through vent holes under the eaves or through windows blown out by heat and pressure differentials, then ignite exposed timbers in attics and furnishings in the rooms.

“A home is sort of like a vacuum, sucking the embers in,” Baker said.

As an example, he pointed to homes burned in Paradise during the Camp fire while the trees, brush and grass around them were untouched by flames.

Baker said California's vegetation management funds would be better spent on grants to install ember screens over attic vents and retrofit homes with double-pane windows.

“Those are two key things, and we’re not putting any money to that at the state or federal level,” he said. “We’re putting $1 billion to vegetation management but zero to home hardening.”

He said funds also should be spent to create defensible space around entire communities as well as around individual homes.

“The other one we’re not doing at all — nobody is even talking about this — is building community shelters,” Baker said. “Those 85 people who died [in the Camp fire] died while trying to evacuate. … Every at-risk community should mandate these community shelters.”

Like the community tornado shelters in the Midwest, community fire shelters would be safe havens for residents who don’t have time to get out of an area if a fast-moving wildfire threatens or whose evacuation routes have been blocked by the fire.

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“We have to recognize that these large fires are inevitable, so we need to find how to protect people’s lives,” Baker said.

Fire officials attribute Santa Barbara County’s high risk, in part, to its location in the wildfire “Goldilocks zone." The county sits far enough north to get good winter rainfall, but it’s far enough south to feel the Southern California summer heat that cooks fuels tinder-dry.

The best way to prepare for wildfires is to prevent them from igniting in the first place. But that may be far easier said than done, because the primary cause of wildfires is people.

Two methods of preventing and controlling wildfires are so mired in controversy that getting their use approved is difficult and if approved, opposition sometimes brings them to a halt.  Ironically, both sides cite the Thomas fire as evidence to bolster their positions.


County Reporter/Associate Editor

Lee Central Coast Newspapers associate editor Mike Hodgson covers Santa Barbara County government and events and issues in Santa Ynez Valley. Follow him on Twitter @MHodgsonSYVNews.

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