In the aftermath of the Woolsey Fire and other extreme fire events in southern California, there has been significant community interest in fire safety and how the management of vegetation on our local open spaces can contribute to community safety. As land managers, we take our stewardship responsibilities seriously and strive to carefully balance our land management priorities to promote a healthy and safe environment. COSCA’s land management as related to fire is based primarily on scientific approaches along with meeting the requirements set forth in the Ventura County Fire Code.
Wildfire Expert Jon Keeley and State Senator Henry Stern Discuss Wildfire Dangers and How to Live with Wildfires.
Fires have always been a feature of the Conejo Valley’s landscape. With a natural return period of 30-100 years and the absence of homes, fire could be called a natural feature rather than a “threat”. Fire becomes a threat, both to homes and the environment, when structures are built in a fire-prone landscape and when human-caused ignitions become more frequent. Additionally, the threat of large destructive fires is closely associated with extreme wind events (Santa Ana Winds), which are also a regular annual feature of our region. Research has shown that destructive fires in our region are driven principally by our region’s weather variables (wind) and human-caused ignition sources more so than fuel conditions. Since all of the Conejo Valley lies in a high-risk fire area, there have always been and will always be fire threats here. Community safety will rely on a combination of preventing human-caused ignitions (from people or infrastructure) and protection of structures through a combination of defensible space creation, home hardening, community planning, and strategic deployment of fire-fighting resources.
COSCA has a comprehensive defensible space program under which we actively manage vegetation where our properties abut communities. Each year COSCA, the City of Thousand Oaks (CTO) and the Conejo Recreation and Park District (CRPD) receives notice from the Ventura County Fire Department (VCFD) for all parcels where the defensible space buffer (100 feet from structures and 10 ft from roads) crosses into COSCA / City / CRPD property. The three agencies partner on this work through a single program. We subsequently complete the fuel modification to the Ventura County Fire Department’s satisfaction, at which time they confirm that the required fuel treatments are complete. The purpose of the defensible space program is to reduce fuel density within 100 feet of a home or structure. This buffer zone gives space to fire fighters and other first responders to protect homes and keeps the radiant heat and direct flames of fires far enough away to prevent structure ignition.
COSCA also invests in community outreach programs to assist homeowners in learning about and implementing practices that help make homes more resistant to ember ignitions, the primary cause of home ignitions. Through a partnership with the Ventura Regional Fire Safe Council, COSCA supports educational webinars on home hardening, free chipper days for homeowners wishing to thin vegetation at their home to have the vegetation chipped and recycled into mulch and free Home Ignition Zone assessments by trained volunteers to identify safety improvement opportunities at individual homes. For more information about these programs, please visit the Fire Safe Council Page at https://venturafiresafe.org/.
One hundred feet is the distance prescribed by the Ventura County Fire Department and is supported by abundant scientific literature showing that, in chaparral and sage scrub habitats, additional vegetation removal does not yield additional protection for homes. COSCA also has a responsibility to protect the environment within our open spaces, and our vegetation is what defines habitat and nature within our open spaces. Retaining this vegetation protects habitats and prevents excess soil erosion.
We note that in wind-driven fires, 100 feet of defensible space may not be enough to protect a home. In the recent Woolsey Fire, blowing embers / firebrands easily jumped 8 lanes of the 101 freeway, as well as igniting homes far from our open space areas. In these cases, winds were a greater contributor to fire spread than fuel volume. See below for information about blowing embers.
In wind-driven fires, embers are often the primary source of home ignitions. Therefore, the actions taken by homeowners in the immediate vicinity of the home are the most important in protecting the home. In these extreme fire events, embers blow well out in front of the main fire line and can ignite homes more than a mile away. No practical amount of vegetation removal from open space can prevent embers from blowing into homes. Therefore, it is very important for homeowners to take the steps necessary to make their homes fire safe. The Ventura County Fire Department has prepared a "Ready, Set, Go" guide for homeowners to help prevent embers from starting fires in their homes. You can download a copy here. Additional information from the Ventura County Fire Department can be found here. Protecting larger neighborhoods requires all homeowners to work together as a single home ignition can rapidly spread to adjacent homes.
Wildfires Can Attack Your House From the Inside — Here's How to Prevent It – KQED, 10/30/2017.
Wind-driven glowing embers pose a greater threat to homes than fire itself – LA Times, 8/3/2008.
The choice of methods used to manage vegetation depends largely on the specific goal for vegetation management, and different methods yield different results. COSCA’s primary goals in our open space is to steward the natural landscapes that create wildlife habitats, provide stability on steeper slopes, and to do our part in creating defensible space for COSCA neighbors. In the defensible space buffers, our goal is to reduce the density of vegetation to prevent radiant heat and flames from impacting homes.
Goats can be very efficient at removing vegetation, but they do not differentiate between the native plants we want to protect and the weedy plants we’d want to remove. Human crews are more selective. The Ventura County Fire Department also does not recommend removing all vegetation from defensible space zones. Rather, they recommend leaving some well-spaced native plants on the site to prevent erosion and provide some habitat cover. Some native shrub and trees can also act to absorb blowing embers and reduce wind velocities near homes, helping to protect homes. Lastly, goats present logistical challenges in their deployment. Most defensible space areas are smaller than the practical minimum size of a grazing area (1 acre).
We are not using goats over larger acreages for the same reason we do not use any method to create “fire breaks”. Fire breaks do not work in shrub-dominated habitats and removing native vegetation results in the colonization of these areas with invasive grasses and herbaceous species that are significantly more flammable and carry fire faster.
While COSCA does not use goats for annual fuel modification related to fire safety, goats and other livestock can be viable tools in land management when the goals of the project are aligned with the capabilities of the animals. For instance, goats are often used to remove weeds on remote and steep hillsides where it is logistically difficult to deploy people. This can be helpful when weed management is integrated into a restoration effort. The difference between using them for restoration and fuel management is that restoration would use the animals for short durations and include re-planting or casting seeds for native vegetation. The goal of restoration is to return the native vegetation communities to degraded open space land. The intensity of grazing would then be modified as native plants return. When COSCA has the resources to implement larger area restoration projects, we will certainly consider livestock as a tool for these projects.
No. While these habitat types are resilient to fire, they do not need fire to persist and more frequent disturbance will cause them to convert to weedy herbaceous landscapes dominated by vegetation that is more flammable. Learn more about chaparral and wildfire from the Chaparral Institute here.
The conversion of one habitat type to another is called type-conversion. A brief description of this process can be found here. COSCA manages land to prevent type-conversion because there are so many species of wildlife that depend on chaparral and coastal sage scrub habitats for their survival.
Here is a short video explaining why COSCA and other conservation agencies value our chaparral ecosystems.
No. As mentioned in the sections above, removing more vegetation is not likely to improve home safety. There has been much talk about using prescribed burns at the state-wide level, but this land management practice is almost always used in pine forest lands. The Conejo Valley does not have pine forests, so this management technique is not applicable here.It is important to note that different habitat types and plant communities require different management practices, and using the wrong practices causes substantial damage to local plant communities and the wildlife that depend on them. Prescribed burns cause the conversion of land from shrubland vegetation to grasslands and herbaceous annual weeds. These fuel types ignite much more easily than shrublands and the fired spread through them more rapidly. This may actually increase fire risks in some areas.
Earlier this week the CA Insurance Commissioner announced a new partnership between multiple state agencies to create state standards for home hardening. The value of doing so would give insurance companies a benchmark to establish standards for fire insurance. This is anticipated to assist homeowners that have implemented home hardening standards to more easily acquire home insurance, and may bring fire insurance rates down.
More Articles and Links About Land Management and Wildfires:
Fuel Management and Wildfires - LA Times, 9/11/2019.
Will Cal Fire’s plan to rip out vegetation in San Diego lead to an explosion in flammable invasive grasses? - The San Diego Union-Tribune, 9/30/19.
Wildland Fire Safety Starts in the Home – University of California Cooperative Extension
S.A.F.E. Landscapes – University of California Cooperative Extension
Fire Safety Information and Education
National Park Service wildfire ecologist Dr. Marti Witter presented, “Fire History, Climate Change, and Wildfire Recovery in the Santa Monica Mountains” on November 12th as part of the Conejo Open Space Foundation speaker series for 2020. For more information and presentation slides, click here.
Your Wildfire Action Plan must be prepared, and familiar to all members of your household well in advance of a wildfire. Each family’s plan will be different, depending on a variety of issues, needs, and situations.
Ensure you plan with COVID-19 in mind. Ask friends or relatives outside your area if you would be able to stay with them, should the need arise. If you do need to evacuate and plan to stay with friends or relatives, ask first if they have symptoms of COVID-19 or have people in their home at higher risk for serious illness. If that is the case, make other arrangements. Check with hotels, motels and campgrounds to learn if they are open. Also get set by learning about your community’s response plan for each disaster and determine if these plans have been adapted because of COVID-19.
Over the past several months, in response to COVID-19, staff has been working with the American Red Cross (ARC) and County OES on a modified approach to sheltering during a wildfire. In addition to reducing shelter facility capacity to 30 percent, the use of a facility to temporarily house evacuees is secondary to the ARC’s use of local hotels and motels. The County and ARC are now employing the use of Temporary Evacuation Points (TEPs) at pre-designated sites where evacuees will arrive to be greeted, assessed and advised where to shelter. The ARC has secured agreements with hotels throughout the Conejo Valley that have agreed to provide rooms via a voucher system.
Being prepared for an evacuation is as important as ever since additional items such as masks, hand sanitizer, and gloves should be included. Learn more about how to prepare for an emergency sheltering or evacuation situation here.