how we could take out parts of fuel so the fire won't burn as rapidly," Ott said. "With islands, a fire can't carry as well since there is no continuous fuel and the fire slows down significantly so we can get there."

The Del Mar fire crews went deep into the canyons with saws and removed dead and dying plants, as well as dead material accumulated on some plants. They cut horizontal and vertical rows of plants and brush, and created "islands," keeping a distance of about 9 feet between plant groupings, which slows the spread of flames in a landscape.

They also separated the "canopy layer" -- the interconnected foliage of uppermost tree branches -- from ground vegetation, by reducing the height of lower-level plants and cutting low limbs from trees. This prevents what firefighters call a "fire ladder" where flames can move from the ground and ignite trees.

When these tasks were completed, fire crews had created not only vegetation islands that would impede a fire, but buffer zones and defensible space that would let firefighters evacuate homes and fight fires more effectively. Yet brush wasn't entirely decimated. The crews were sensitive to the landscape, identifying the needs for soil stability, wildlife habitat, aesthetics and resident privacy.

"The goal is not to go in and clear-cut and take everything out," said Michael Huff, manager of urban and community forestry and wildfire prevention planning at Dudek. "It's not desirable for homeowners, and you have soil erosion issues. The goal is to, No. 1, reduce the amount of fuel in a given area; and two, break up the continuity of fuel, since a fire will only move through an area with continuous fuel."

Dudek's mapping of fire hazards helps fire departments predict how a forest fire will behave and prepares fire crews to fight the blaze, Huff said.

Also, the fire hazard maps assist in communications with city officials, and can help a fire department secure a grant and/or city funds, since the maps reveal precise danger areas and what would happen to those areas in the event of a fire. And when homeowners living near fire hazard areas are shown the maps, they are often willing to cooperate with a fire department's advice.

"We can show a map that reveals how huge a fire can get near residential homes, and the homeowner usually becomes concerned and is a lot more willing to have the fire department come in with full on cooperation," Huff said. "We can show how it is now, and we can actually tweak the model to represent an area that has been treated."

Maximizing Prevention

Fire prevention is not a new science, but by utilizing urban foresters' latest technology and expertise, Ott strategically maximized fire prevention -- a very important role for a firefighter.

"We used the latest technology to affect our fire prevention plan and looked at the big picture to hopefully maximize what we can do instead of looking at a fairly narrow perspective," Ott said. "The real effect is fire prevention, is where the community will receive the most significant benefits."

Combining the use of high-technology software with fire prevention has caught on, said Ott, who has been contacted by other communities interested in his program. Dudek's urban forestry and fire prevention division has about a dozen clients, said Huff, but Del Mar is a growing area for the company.

Ott is pleased with the fire prevention results, but the work is not done. He wants to see more investments in fire prevention in the coming years, so that homeowners and fire crews consistently clear out fire fuel.

"It's great that we've done this," Ott said, "however, vegetation grows back, and it's the responsibility of property owners as well as the fire district to maintain the vegetation management plan."

Chandler Harris  |  Contributing Writer