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Santa Barbara County Fire Department's wildland firefighters Crew 1-1 and Crew 1-2 work to clear a line while training near their camp at Cachuma Lake. 

California regulators have streamlined the state permit process for vegetation-thinning projects to make getting approval a smoother process for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department and others.

Easing the previous restrictions is expected to smooth the way for the County Fire Department to undertake a number of vegetation management projects outlined in its Strategic Fire Plan to slow the spread of massive wildfires, a County Fire spokesman said.

But critics said projects affected by the eased restrictions would have done little if anything to slow the raging wind-driven wildfires of recent years and won’t do much to control slower-moving wildfires unless they are maintained in perpetuity.

In late December, the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection approved the programmatic environmental impact report for the state Vegetation Treatment Program that’s been in development for a full decade.

Fire break

A fire break runs up a hill near Harris Grade Road north of Lompoc on Tuesday.

The programmatic EIR is based on more than a decade of analysis of potential environmental damage from removing various types of fuel such as alpine trees and chaparral, a board spokesman said.

Agencies like Cal Fire and Santa Barbara County Fire can use the programmatic EIR for projects that fall within the Vegetation Treatment Program’s parameters rather that creating an entirely new environmental document for every project, said Rob Hazard, county fire marshal.

“It’s not streamlining the environmental review process, but it will make it easier to get through the paperwork side of it,” Hazard explained. “For us, the bigger benefit is it legitimizes what we’re doing for environmental review.”

Hazard said it will be helpful in “gray areas” where it’s hard to determine if a project is exempt from California Environmental Quality Act requirements or requires an environmental review because the VTP analyzes and accounts for many more projects than the Vegetation Management Program it will replace.

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“The Vegetation Treatment Program is a much more comprehensive program that will cover whatever we do, whether it’s creating defensible space by hand crews, machinery like dozers and masticators or prescribed fire,” Hazard said.

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Bulldozers dig a fire line south of Highway 166 as the Alamo fire burns late Friday afternoon July 7, 2017.

He said while the program has been criticized, the county saw direct benefits of work to create a defensible space around a community during the Cave fire last year.

“Painted Cave got hit pretty hard in the lower part,” he said. “But we had some engines in there because they felt safe and they were able to stay and put out all the embers. No structures were lost.”

Even the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection cited the Cave fire in its answers to frequently asked questions on its website.

“Most recently, in Santa Barbara County, two priority treatment projects had direct benefits to firefighters and the evacuating public during the Cave Fire,” the board said. “By using fuel breaks, firefighters were able to access the fire and strategically and safely fight the Cave fire, resulting in zero structures destroyed.”

County Fire already has approval and state funding to cut fuel breaks along the ridge tops between the Lompoc and Los Alamos valleys.

Fire officials plan to conduct more prescribed burns to reduce the wildfire fuel load in such high-risk areas as Vandenberg Village, Mission Hills and Cebada Canyon, with a goal of burning between 1,000 and 2,000 acres per year.

Series: Wildfire County - Planning for the next big blaze

Large, destructive and deadly wildfires have become the "new normal" for California, according to the state Fire Foundation, and they can break out anytime, anywhere. Santa Barbara County has an average of 100 wildfires per year. While almost 96% of them are contained at less than 10 acres, the exceptions are record-setting.

The county's mix of topography, abundant fuels and Sundowner winds presents a specific set of challenges for firefighters who say they'd rather fight wildfires almost anywhere than the place some of them have dubbed Wildfire County.

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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.

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While Santa Barbara County's fire marshal Rob Hazard doesn't believe wildfires are becoming more unpredictable in their behavior, he does acknowledge conditions are changing making them bigger, longer lasting, and being more difficult to contain.

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“Firenado” sounds like the title for a campy science-fiction flick, but it’s a real phenomenon that firefighters say they’re seeing more often as wildfires worldwide become more intense.

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With about 14,000 homes in the communities of Vandenberg Village, Mission Hills and Mesa Oaks located on and around the reserve, and with wildfires becoming increasingly stronger and more dangerous, protecting the region from wildland blazes has become a renewed priority for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

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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.

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Although “fire season” is now considered year-round in Santa Barbara County and throughout most of California, the danger level increases when a mild spring warms into a hot summer and then bakes into a blazing fall. 

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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.

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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.

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OPINION Today’s editorial is all about sharing the stories of your friends and neighbors, and their thoughts and fears about wildfires, all of which collectively paint a crucially important picture.

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While the approaching Alamo fire sparked apprehension and fear in Tepusquet residents, panic wasn’t part of the equation — the neighborhood is one of the best prepared for wildfire in the county. In fact, after completing a fuels treatment project, Tepusquet in 2009 was designated a Model Fire Safe Community.

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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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