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Another Extended Fire Season for Santa Cruz, California

As preventative steps, the city has undertaken a comprehensive open space vegetation management program revived by the Santa Cruz Fire and Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation departments in recent years.

by Jessica A. York, Santa Cruz Sentinel, Calif. / July 25, 2019

(TNS) — As California continues to grapple with heightened wildland fire risk, Santa Cruz — with less exposure to risk than some areas — is readying for its worst-case scenarios.

As a rule, late summer and early fall is when fire response statewide and across jurisdictional borders tends to be hard and fast — stopping the conflagrations before they have time to take hold, according to Santa Cruz Fire Chief Jason Hajduk. Leading up to the fire season, however, the city has been doing extensive preventative work, creating “defensible space” that can stop a spreading fire in its tracks.

“When we get into August, September, October, generally speaking, we’re dryer, we’re warmer. So, any fire that starts, it’s more likely to start and it’s more likely to spread rapidly. And so we go into an elevated dispatch mode, where we send a lot of resources upfront and the goal is to try to stop the spread of that,” Hajduk said at last month’s city Public Safety Committee. “We’re pretty successful, but there are times when it gets away from us, and that’s why we’re really focusing on the vegetation management, again, not trying to limit the spread from suppression activities, but by design in those open spaces so that if we have a fire, we limit its spread and of the size of it and most importantly, limit the impact both to the open spaces and to the neighborhoods.”

Between Jan. 1 and June 14, the city fire department had responded to 21 fires in its open spaces. Each fire was human-caused, by vehicle, smoking material, outdoor cooking or discarded materials, city Fire Marshal Rob Oatey said at the same meeting.

“We have had and probably will continue to have an expanded fire season. We had an aggressive enforcement effort between police and fire last year with eight arrests and two convictions for intentionally set fires,” Oatey said. “If need be, we will follow through with closure of city-owned spaces if the threat continues, and of course, there will be zero tolerance for illegal fires in any open spaces to preserve public interest.”

A Spoonful of Prevention

As preventative steps, the city has undertaken a comprehensive open space vegetation management program revived by the Santa Cruz Fire and Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation departments in recent years. Fire officials also are cultivating a program encouraging neighboring private property owners to band together in their own stewardship efforts. In particular, those areas of particular concern are the city’s greenbelt and open spaces that abut developed areas, the region comprised of some 4,000 structures and categorized as the “wildland urban interface.”

The city’s first FireWise Council neighborhood, similar to neighborhood watch groups or Community Emergency Response Teams, launched in the DeLaveaga/Prospect Heights neighborhood in 2017. Since then, two other city neighborhoods, in the Highland Avenue/Hillcrest Terrace and Western Drive areas, have begun the process of earning a similar national certification for their work in fire preparedness — a process involving assessing their area’s fire risks and encouraging residents’ vigilance with vegetation maintenance, best home building materials and more. The fire department will host a fire preparedness public outreach meeting at 6 p.m. Aug. 21 at the Santa Cruz Police Department community room, 155 Center St.

“We’re working side-by-side with them to get approval so that they can take advantage of the program and have assistance in maintaining their properties and the surrounding area,” Oatey told Public Safety Commission members of the new FireWise groups. “It’s about clearing out gutters, keeping the roof clear, trim branches hanging over the roof, keeping woodpiles away from the home, reduce combustible materials around the home.”

Greenbelt Attention

Through vegetation management, the Santa Cruz Fire Department has accelerated efforts in the past year and a half to reduce the city’s fire risk exposure at wildland urban interface, making headway in areas such as DeLaveaga Park, Moore Creek Preserve, Aroyo Seco, Arana Gulch and the Pogonip. The city also is in the process of updating its portions of the County Wildland Protection Plan in conjunction with partner Cal Fire, he said.

“While there are some areas along the levee, near Neary Lagoon, Lighthouse Field, that are open areas, they don’t have the fuel continuity or arrangement in relation to neighborhoods that would be what we would consider a wildland urban interface,” Hajduk said at the city meeting.

During a tour of city-owned wildland urban interface areas Wednesday, Hajduk said it had been some 20 years since the city has undertaken serious vegetation management, beyond maintaining public paths, in open spaces such as DeLaveaga Park. DeLaveaga itself is identified in the statewide Fire Risk Assessment Program as one of the city’s highest-risk fire areas, Hajduk said.

As part of the city’s renewed focus, contracted California Conservation Corps workers were clearing brush and low-hanging tree branches — “ladder fuel” — Wednesday in the city-owned strip of land between the Tannery Arts Center and the San Lorenzo River’s moist riparian area. The area was of concern to fire officials after a series of small fires there last year, Hajduk said. Out at DeLaveaga Park, evidence of multiple seasons of ongoing fire land management was apparent in its various stages, with areas cleared last year slowly beginning to refill with low brush and shortened tree limbs cut this year in evidence above fresh mulched wood chips spread underneath. Tree and brush growth that once continued right up to narrow neighborhood roads had been pushed back tens of feet from the pavement.

“Now you can see through the forest, you can see individual trees, instead of just a wall of brush,” Hajduk said of DeLaveaga work.


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