Thomas Fire Exposes East County Wildfire Risk

Thomas Fire Exposes East County Wildfire Risk


Nearly a decade ago, prior to the Thomas Fire, Ventura County fire agencies prepared Wildfire Protection Plans identifying risks, funding priorities, and programs to reduce the impact of wildfires countywide. Fire agencies were warning of increasing wildfire danger even before the current drought cycle began in 2012. The plans, prepared in 2009 and 2010, outlined remedies that were largely unheeded and unfunded, providing a wake-up call for communities that are still at risk, particularly in eastern Ventura County.

The wildfire plans identify high risk areas adjacent to all Ventura County communities except for Oxnard and Point Hueneme. Flat terrain and fields of irrigated agriculture surround these cities protecting them from wildfire risk. All other cities and most unincorporated communities were identified as being in close proximity to Cal Fire designated “very high fire hazard severity zones”.

The Ventura County Fire Protection District’s 2009 Fire Management Plan, signed by former Fire Chief Bob Roper, predicted the area where the Thomas Fire destroyed homes adjacent to the Ventura Fuel Bed, clearly describing the risk: “Fingers of development in the areas between Harmon, Sexton and Barlow Canyons would be challenging to protect in a wild fire driven by winds from the northeast. Additional risk areas include Sulfur Mountain Road, Creek Road and the east side of Highway 33. Unfortunately, only 2% of the prescribed fuel management activities in this fuel bed were implemented prior to the fire.

These “fingers of development” described in the plans, refer to the Ondulando, Clearpoint and Skyline Drive communities that paid the highest price for lack of action as the Thomas Fire burned across the Ventura Fuel Bed.

Our post Thomas Fire analysis reveals the presence of thick unmanaged brush on the hillsides of Harmon Canyon, north and east of the burned Ventura communities. However, in 1950, when building in the Ondulando subdivision began, the adjacent Harmon Canyon was primarily annual grass.

Recent aerial photos before and after the fire show the Clearpoint subdivision with Harmon Canyon to the east, confirming the dense brush that the fire swept through destroying houses in its path (photos courtesy of the Rancho Ventura Conservation Trust). This dense brush on the hillside is a product of the prohibition of prescribed burns from 1960 to 1988, due primarily to air quality requirements. And recent policies continue to severely limit controlled burns.

Click to enlarge

An illustration of the lack of wildfire management today as compared to most of our past history is shown in photos of Barlow Canyon (photos courtesy of the Rancho Ventura Conservation Trust). The 1955 photo shows grasslands with small stands of brush that were managed by controlled burns and mechanized brush removal within a cattle grazing operation. In contrast, the 2009 photo shows the hillside covered with thick brush. Moving forward, proactive brush control policies will be critical to public safety in Ventura County in the Wildfire Urban Interfaces. With proper land management, 80% of all home losses from wildfires are preventable.

The Ojai Valley Fire Safe Council prepared the 2010 Community Wildfire Protection Plan with participation of Cal Fire and the County Board of Supervisors. The plan described why wildfire hazards and risks have increased in Ventura County: “Fire suppression policies of recent decades have left millions of acres overgrown and crowded with dense and highly flammable brush”. While the Ventura County Fire Protection District has a long-standing countywide weed-abatement program, they approximated that 535,000 people, 185,000 housing units and 13,700 businesses are at risk for wildfires within the at-risk communities of Ventura County.

This is a critical warning to the interface areas adjacent to the populated communities of Simi Valley, Moorpark, Thousand Oaks, and the rural communities of Fillmore and Piru. Both plans recommended wildfire prevention projects that need to be elevated with the highest priority for funding by our Ventura County government to protect our residents.

  • Specific areas of concern in East Ventura County were identified and mapped in the 2009 Wildfire Management Plan including the following:
  1. Thousand Oaks Fuel Bed (western Thousand Oaks, Newbury Park and southern Moorpark)
  2. ­ Dos Vientos Project north of Potrero Road in Newbury Park to evaluate the risk of exposure as this community grows
  3. ­ Wildwood III Project north of Newbury Park, south of Santa Rosa Valley, west of the City of Thousand Oaks and east of Hill Canyon Road. This project was rated HIGH PRIORITY because of its interface protection value. In 2009 the project was pending completion of an environmental report.
  • ­COSCA Project Fuel Management Plan including controlled burns and mechanized work.
  1. Oak Ridge and Simi Hills Fuel Beds (northern Moorpark, Simi Valley and eastern Thousand Oaks)
  2. ­ Las Llajas Project to establish a fuel break from Evening Sky to Highway 126
  3. ­ Corringville Project to improve defensible space for Santa Susana Knolls
  4. ­ Oak Park Wildland Urban Interface Project surrounding the northeastern portion of Oak Park to increase defensible space along the perimeter. Requires Federal Funding from the National Park Service
  5. ­ Kevington Project located in Skeleton Canyon with HIGH PRIORITY due to proximity to an interface area
  6. ­ Reagan Library Project to maintain fuel breaks around the library
  • Malibu Fuel Bed – Vedder Motor Way Project to re-establish the motorway from Carlisle Canyon to Yerba Buena road. There is also a reference to a pending National Park Service clearance project.
  • Fillmore and Piru Fuel Beds
  1. ­ Piru Fillmore Front Project to protect high-dollar citrus, avocado and ornamental plant production to alter the state of hazardous ground and ladder fuels on up to 1,470 acres. Defensible space would provide a buffer along the farm road system and provide protection to the adjacent California condor habitat.
  2. ­ Road System Project to improve an extensive dirt road system in the foothills between Fillmore and Santa Paula.
  3. ­ Condor Refuge Project with the US Fish and Wildlife Service contracting with the Ventura County Fire department to provide defensible space around the Hopper Ranch Center and the bird pens
  4. ­ Fillmore and Piru Wildland Interface Fuel Break Project is federally funded to occur from Fillmore to Piru to prevent fire from entering these communities
  5. ­ Hopper Mountain Refuge Project to protect structures and increase defensible spaces
  6. ­ Goodenough Road Project to protect citrus and avocado orchards along the road

If you live in a community within the above-recognized fuel beds and have concerns about your fire risk, we encourage you to contact your County Supervisor and ask questions about the status of the wildfire prevention projects near you.

Your community is at high risk if it is in close proximity to rugged terrain with overgrown chaparral. In fact, as we started writing this article on February 19, six spot fires broke out east of Simi Valley, north of the 118 Freeway between Kuehner Drive and Rocky Peak Road. Fortunately, the winds were low and Ventura County Fire Department had it under control quickly. As we know, in Ventura County, Santa Anna winds can exceed 100 miles an hour, leaving very little time for nearby communities to evacuate.

The lack of vegetation management pre-Thomas Fire begs for expanded awareness and for the public to exert pressure on elected officials to make proactive wildfire protection a fiscal priority. While we appreciate the value of open space in our County, it is important to recognize the heightened risk of wildfire that continues to threaten our quality of life. With environmental organizations predicting a future of climate change causing extended drought conditions, it is irresponsible for our elected officials to place lives and property in danger by allowing pristine wilderness to remain unmanaged in close proximity to our developed communities.

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Lynn Jensen