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Call For Statewide Standards For Enforcing Brush Fire Clearance Laws; Ventura County Cited As Model

The Thomas Fire burning in Ventura County in December of 2017

Wildfires have become all too familiar on the Central and South Coasts.  For instance, the massive 280,000 Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara killed two people, and destroyed more than a thousand structures.

On top of coronavirus, in addition to protest marches, we are in high brush fire season.  A new state report points out that while brush clearance, or defensible space around structures is the key to protecting them from fire, there are major inconsistencies when it comes to enforcement.  It suggests the state should adopt Ventura County’s model.

Pedro Nava is Chairman of the Little Hoover Commission, which did the study of wildfire preparedness.  The commission serves as sort of a statewide Grand Jury, acting as an independent watchdog of the executive branch of the state government. 

People in high brushfire risk areas are required to remove brush for at least 100 feet away from structures.

Nava says as they researched the issue, they found that Ventura County’s program of sending notices, along with before and after inspections had a more than 99% compliance rate.  The report notes that in 2018, the county’s property owners in the voluntarily cleared more than 16,000 parcels.  The county only had to use enforcement efforts to clear brush on two dozen pieces of land.

But, enforcement is more of an issue in other parts of the state.  The state fire agencies, CALFIRE, provides some services in 36 of the state’s 58 counties.  And, it is the fire department for eight counties, including San Luis Obispo County.

Because of coronavirus, CALFIRE is asking people to do their own defensible space online assessments using an online tool, instead of comprehensive in person inspections.  Nava says the online tool is well designed and easy to use, but note the Commission is concerned over whether people will actually do it.

Nava, who’s a former state assemblyman for Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, says the commission believes this issue is so critical, the effectiveness of the online approach has to be assessed.  He says if it isn’t working, a different approach needs to be used, because the clearance is so critical.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.