Monday, October 22, 2018     Volume: 19, Issue: 33

Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on August 2nd, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 22 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 18, Issue 22

Burn rates: The Alamo and Whittier Fires required tens of millions 
of dollars to fight, but those aren't the only costs


The drive into Tepusquet Canyon from its south end offers rolling hills, ranch homes and ancient oak trees, coyotes dodging between grape vines, and deer grazing in pastures. But on the approach from Santa Maria, a long skyline of bruised black hills reveals the devastation wrought by the Alamo Fire and the real threat it posed to the rural community that calls the canyon home.

From inside the canyon, residents Renee O’Neill and Linda Tunnell surveyed the same charred hillsides from Tunnell’s horse pasture. A large red stain across one crest of hill illustrated the efforts of local, state, and federal firefighters in battling the blaze from the air, dumping thousands of gallons of fire retardant to stem the inferno.

Local and state fire officials identified Tepusquet as a very high risk area for fires, Tunnell and O’Neill explained, and once a fire starts, it’s incredibly challenging to contain. It’s exactly why they began the Fire Associates for the Community of Tepusquet (FACT), to protect their homes and also aid firefighters when a fire starts near their properties.

“It’s the terrain,” O’Neill said, “it’s steep, narrow canyon that had not burned since the Dalton Fire in 1953.”

Since the Alamo Fire began on July 6, it burned 28,687 acres and saw as many as 2,000 firefighters responding at one point. Many of the canyon’s residents evacuated themselves, along with pets and livestock. One residence was lost and another structure was damaged before the fire was fully contained in mid-July.

By contrast, the Whittier Fire, which began on July 8 near Camp Whittier at Cachuma Lake, scorched more than 18,000 acres of similar terrain in the Santa Ynez Mountains before it was contained. The fire destroyed 16 residences and 30 more buildings, and others were left damaged. The destruction and scope of both fires spurred Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency in Santa Barbara County on July 16.

The monetary cost of the fires is so far estimated in the tens of millions of dollars, but the loss of property, livelihood, and time for locals is difficult to record.

For fire-wise landowners like Tunnell, O’Neill, and their neighbors, it’s a price they pay not just with money, but also in hard work and preparation year round. Those whose property was destroyed are left to sift through ashes and the emotional toil of personal loss, facing a long slog through the bureaucracy of insurance and rebuilding.

And the question of how best to address and prevent future wildfires, while weighing environmental and safety concerns, seems especially pressing in a still young fire season.

Rate of response

Both the Alamo and Whittier Fires required massive, multi-agency response, with local firefighters working side by side with state, federal, and other county and municipal crews and equipment. Helicopters and fixed wing aircraft, including the massive DC-10 Air Tanker, were employed to extinguish from the sky, while ground crews manned bulldozers, water tenders, fire engines, and masticators to clear ignitable brush.

The Alamo Fire swept through more than 28,000 acres of grassy and dry hillsides along Tepusquet Canyon, where fire crews protected homes and vineyards from the fast-spreading blaze.

The Whittier Fire saw the U.S. Forest Service, Cal Fire, and Santa Barbara County Fire Department under a unified command called the California Inter-Agency Incident Management Team 3.

Under that umbrella, an incident command post of almost military proportions was constructed at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, Team 3 Public Information Officer Jay Nichols told the Sun. Hundreds of first responders were provided housing, food, showers, laundry services, bathrooms, training, and supplies there. It also served as a base camp for logistics, planning, finance, air operations, and public information, he said.

It wasn’t just fire crews that were involved in the response, Nichols explained, but other “cooperating agencies” like the American Red Cross, or PG&E and SoCal Edison for help with protecting or repairing power infrastructure.

Nichols spoke with the Sun on July 21, when the estimated cost for the Whittier Fire alone was $30.5 million. Santa Barbara County Fire Department Public Information Officer David Zaniboni updated that figure on July 27, when it was estimated at $36.7 million.

The Alamo Fire was under Cal Fire command, and figures regarding the cost of response were not available to the Sun before press time. According to a July 18 post on the Santa Barbara County Twitter page, however, the estimated cost of the Alamo Fire was at least $20 million.

Living in fire country

Sitting in Tunnell’s dining room in Tepusquet, she and O’Neill poured over their master list of Tepusquet Canyon residents. The list included names, addresses, phone numbers, and other pertinent information, like who has water sources, how many people live on each property, and what kind of animals they have. Some entries stood out, like “winding driveway” or “three very protective dogs.”

Tunnell and O’Neill began compiling the list years ago, when they started FACT, the community coalition organized to help prevent fires and aid fire crews when wildfires start near Tepusquet. O’Neill became the group’s liaison with the Santa Barbara County Fire Safe Council and eventually served on the board. The group holds yearly barbecues in Tunnell’s yard, where about 150 people attend, often with a talk by U.S. Forest Service or county fire personnel. They focus on what can be done to prepare for wildfire season, such as having lots of defensible space around their homes or an evacuation plan.

When a fire starts, O’Neill and Tunnell kick into gear. They have a phone tree system to call and alert residents, a chain of command, and resources to share. But this year, things didn’t quite go as planned.

“Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong,” O’Neill said.

First, O’Neill was out of town for a family reunion. She’s the lead, so Tunnell was the next in command, but her landline wasn’t operating.

Even though their reaction time was stunted for the Alamo Fire, the community was still ready to respond.

“I was so proud of our canyon,” Tunnell said. “Friday afternoon, I’m seeing horse trailers, people moving, and you know they were really taking it seriously. They had a plan and they were doing it.”

Many residents evacuated, some to an American Red Cross shelter set up at the Minami Community Center in Santa Maria, while others didn’t leave. Many stayed home to bolster up the defenses of their property, clearing fire lines, spreading fire retardant gel on their homes, and making sure fire crews had access to their property and water.

When Tunnell and her husband built their home in the 1990s, permitting required that properties with new homes have water tanks with at least 8,000 gallons of water on hand for fires. Many residents also have wells and water collection pools. A blue ribbon still marked the well on Tunnell’s property tied there to alert fire crews that needed to fill up engines or tenders, but she had taken down the large sign from her driveway alerting them of her well.

FACT provides county fire and the U.S. Forest Service with their phone list, but also with a line map of Tepusquet, which details water resources and access points for sections of the canyon. Those were especially useful to fire crews from elsewhere in the state that came to help fight the Alamo.

County fire’s Zaniboni voiced his appreciation for FACT and the residents of Tepusquet Canyon when the Sun asked about their efforts.

“People up there are prepared,” Zaniboni said. “From what I saw, they had good defensible space clearing. For the most part, people that live in those areas are ready and have a plan.”

Living in wildfire country comes with risks, and many Santa Barbara County residents think beyond evacuation plans and defensible space to insurance. With the homes and other property lost to the Whittier Fire, homeowners now are filling out paperwork and filing claims, beginning the often slow and laborious process to rebuild.

When the Tea Fire swept though Montecito and Santa Barbara in November of 2008, it destroyed more than 200 houses, including the home of Westmont College physics professor Dr. Ken Kihlstrom. He and his wife were out of the country at the time, leading a study abroad program across Europe. They were in Israel when they got the news that their home was completely torched.

“For the people living here, they had all the smells and sight and the ashes and going through stuff, and that was fairly traumatic for them,” he said. “But for us, we’d had the ruins demolished long before we even came back.”

The coupled racked up a hefty long distance phone bill dealing with all the fallout and red tape, he said.

They had AAA homeowners insurance, which guaranteed replacement of the house. But getting a new home built in Santa Barbara wasn’t the easiest process.

“Every time there’s a fire and all that, the politicians will go in front of the cameras and say, ‘We’re going to streamline the process for people to rebuild,’” he said. “And so if you’re just going to rebuild the same thing, it is streamlined, but if you want to do something different, it takes more time.”

It was nearly nine months before the city approved their plans, he explained, and they didn’t have a home on their property until a year and a half after the fire.

“And Santa Barbara is Santa Barbara,” Kihlstrom said. “They always have concern about what’s being built, and there’s a little tendency to micro-manage, but they weren’t totally unreasonable. But it was not a quick process.”

Yearn to burn

Kathryn Donovan remembers a time in the Tepusquet Canyon when controlled wild land burns were a regular part of rural life, a time when farmers and ranchers would come together each winter to volunteer energy and materials to the fires.

The burns were small and frequent and were part of an effort to prevent huge and extremely destructive infernos.

The Whittier Fire saw response from land and air, including fire retardant drops from Cal Fire aircraft. The total costs to fight the fire are currently estimated at $36.7 million.

But these kinds of burns were done years ago, Donovan said, in the ’60s and ’70s, long before Santa Barbara County enacted its strict policy on controlled burns in rural areas.

Now, a burn permit is required for all agricultural burning, prescribed burns, and vegetation management—which also requires a smoke management plan—and residential backyard burning, which is only permitted in unincorporated areas of the Santa Ynez Valley.

Burn permits regulate the materials burned, the hours burning is allowed, ignition, smoke management, fire suppression, the size and number of piles, and more.

Donovan, O’Neill, and Tunnell all expressed concern over the strict requirements that they say burden locals and prevent them from igniting controlled burns on their property. O’Neill and Tunnell also spoke support for strategic controlled burns by U.S. Forest Service on public lands for ignitable fuel reduction.

The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors mulled over possible answers at its July 18 meeting, where the supervisors decided to review the county’s policy on controlled burns later this year.

The decision came after Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Eric Peterson delivered an update on the fires. Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino asked about controlled burns, citing curiosity from constituents.

“It’s not for a lack of trying,” Peterson said, “and I think that this whole episode this year is ample evidence that we would probably be well served to do more of that.”

But the controlled fire debate illustrates a much larger moral question: Should we first protect people’s homes, or the environment?

To Donovan, the solution is simple: Let farmers and ranchers burn land in the winter to protect homes in the summer. It’s the prevention method rural residents have been using for years, and in many cases, it works, she said.

After owning 1,000 acres of mountainous land in Tepusquet Canyon for years, Donovan said her family, and other families like hers, have learned to adequately prepare for wildfire season. Donovan said her family builds their own firebreaks, keeps defensible space around their home, and has roads for fire trucks running through their property.

In the past, Donovan said yearly controlled burns were a huge part of this prevention process. The burns removed fallen trees, dead grass, and brush from the forest floor, Donovan said, all of which are extremely flammable materials. Some ranchers burned their land as often as once a year, others less frequently.

“If the fires are really, really hot, like [the Alamo Fire], it burns the soil and burns the seeds,” Donovan said. “We need to have controlled burns so we can avoid these super hot burns that destroy everything, including housing.”

Santa Barbara County Fire Captain David Zaniboni said the fire department still does controlled winter burns “all the time,” if the weather permits. In recent drought-ridden years, he said, it’s been more difficult to do burns. Land filled with dried vegetation can make them difficult to control. Last winter, Zaniboni said, they had the opposite problem—the land was too wet to burn thanks to massive rains.

Cost of control

While controlled burns may help to protect homes from a summer blaze, environmentalists agree that burning the chaparral too frequently could have dramatic adverse effects.

Part of what made both the Alamo (pictured) and Whittier fires difficult to contain was the steep terrain fire crews had to navigate while fighting them. Fire breaks, back burning, and air drops all proved crucial in the battle.

Richard Halsey, director of the Chaparral Institute, a nonprofit organization that provides educational programs and research on California’s chaparral habitat, said the institute has been working closely with the U.S. Forest Service in an effort to teach rural residents and community leaders about the sensitive ecosystems in rural Santa Barbara County.

Halsey said the natural, healthy interval between fires in the chaparral should be anywhere between 30 and 100 years. The years between fires allow burned native species to regenerate and bring new life to the forest. The time frame is what plants and animals in the area have naturally adapted to.

But the time between fires in the chaparral is becoming shorter every year, Halsey said, and continual fires destroy soil, making it difficult for native species to grow. Instead, Halsey said, frequently burned areas of the chaparral leave room for flammable weeds and grasses, thus increasing the possibility of huge, destructive fires.

The best way to prevent destructive fires in the chaparral would be to reduce human ignitions, he said, adding that people traveling on rural roads start most wildfires accidentally. Overheating cars that have pulled over into grassy areas, sparks from chains dragging on the road, and sparks from weed-whackers hitting rocks have all caused massive wildfires in the past. Barriers along rural roadways could be an inexpensive way to prevent these ignitions, he said.

Rural communities should also be built to withstand fires, Halsey said, the same way structures are built to endure earthquakes.

“Most homes burn because the embers that land on patio furniture or float through vents into attics,” Halsey said. “And people aren’t responding to that. The focus is often on vegetation and defensible space, and we in the science community are always scratching our heads.”

Retrofitting roofs and refitting homes with ember resistant vents are fairly inexpensive ways to prevent homes from burning in wildfires, Halsey said, and the most effective.

These sentiments were echoed by several other environmentalists and ecologists, including Jeff Kuyper of the Los Padres ForestWatch and Travis Longcore, a University of Southern California biological and special sciences professor. Longcore, who also teaches ecology to architecture students, said many people think controlled burns work in the chaparral because they work in coniferous forests. But coniferous forest fires are very different from those in chaparral, he said.

Coniferous trees are naturally very tall, Longcore said, making it easy for people to burn dead grass and branches from the forest floor without burning the tops of trees. Vegetation in the chaparral, on the other hand, is short, making it almost impossible to keep a fire burning on the forest floor without burning entire shrubs and trees, thus damaging the ecology of the area.

“I think the evidence shows that controlled burns wouldn’t help in the chaparral,” Longcore said. “I don’t think that controlled burns are the thing to do.”

But rural residents like those in Tepusquet think differently. They feel vindicated by past experience, and argue that controlled burns are a way to mitigate the spread of wildfires, not remove the risk entirely.

Tunnell and O’Neill can tick off several wildfires they’ve endured, like the Zaca and Le Brea fires in 2007 and 2009, respectively. Even though those wildfires were much more massive, controlled burns were a line of defense that kept the flames from reaching their homes, they said.

But ultimately, controlled burns are just another way to mitigate fires and protect their homes, along with the toolbox of techniques they already employ. From clearing their own fire lines to expanding defensible space, it’s the organization and education of the canyon’s residents that make it a model fire-safe community, they said.

“Every time we have a fire and something goes wrong, or something could have been better, we get together and say, OK, what can we do to improve the next one we’ll be facing,” O’Neill said. “It’s not a matter of if we’ll have a fire, it’s when the next one will come.” 

Contact Managing Editor Joe Payne at or Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash at

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