MONTECITO, Calif. - About 350 tons of dangerous fire-prone brush is coming out of the Montecito hills in a program to make the area more defensible in a wildfire incident.
It's paid for through the Montecito Fire Protection District, through a Cal Fire grant, this year, and in the past through taxes. Other regional fire agencies have similar programs. Some with area assessments.
Property owners are encouraged to clear back brush that could be in the designated range of their structures, where a wildland fire could grow and both destroy homes or continue to spread.
When the fuel is reduced, the fire slows down and the attack plan is more aggressive and effective.
The district has alerted property owners mainly above Highway 192 in a high fire zone. This year, two other nearby areas were also added in based on the funding allocation and the need.
The program allows for all the cuttings a property owner can stack up, if it comes in the defensible space areas.
Then, folowing a set calendar, a crew from the Eco Tree Works company will come through and clear the brush with a chipper.
Once it is finished, property owners can see the difference and the fire protection they will have going into high fire season.
Wildland Fire Specialist Maeve Juarez says anyone who needs an inspection or has a question can call the district and an inspector will help them with the process and do a safety evaluation of their property.
Studies show 77 percent of all fires are within 50-feet of a road. They are also mainly caused by human activity.
Juarez says even though the Thomas Fire in 2017 was devastating in the area, it left many areas untouched or with just spotty fire damage even though it was massive. Overall between nearly December 2017 and mid January 2018 it burned in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, wiping out 440 square miles.
That has kept the risk level very high. It also emphasizes why this brush clearing program is necessary as early in the Spring as possible.
Santa Barbara County has, over the years, had devastating fires in May and June.
"As you look around you can see there is a ton of vegetation on the hillsides, " said Juarez during a vegetation clearing project. "We're really looking at that first 100 feet next to a structure." She was right below four homes on top of a steep, sloping hill. One other lot was empty due to a loss in the Thomas fire.
The Eco Tree Works company is clearing out multiple sections of the Montecito high fire front country during the project which has a posted chipping calendar on the fire department's website. The property owners only have to do the stacking.
"Wherever they put them we will go get them. I am quite experienced at backing up. We get them wherever they're at," said Eco Tree Works owner and former firefighter, Ron Wheat.
More funding for what are called "home hardening" programs is coming later this year. A new program to offer fire protection home vents will be rolling out in April.
Firefighters say one of the best times of the year to do fire prevention is when there is not a wildfire.
With a three-person crew, and a hungry chipper, the blades were shredding branches as quickly as they were tossed in Thursday morning. "The faster we can get through this pile, we can go on to the next one. We will probably do hundreds and hundreds of piles," said Wheat about the overall work load.
He knows each load makes a difference. "It's not about the fire when it gets there, it is the prevention stuff that saves homes, " said Wheat.
Looking over cleared properties with tailored landscaping, Juarez says "it's a great view of how you can remove vegetation away from the homes and then still have it aesthetically pleasing and have the root structures to hold the hillsides together."
The department also provides one-on-one help and advice.
"A lot of people call and ask us to come out and do an inspection first and then ask us to look at their pile and make sure they are doing it properly. We are always happy to come out and look at any property."
For more information go to the: Montecito Fire Protection District - Neighborhood Fire Prevention Project