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Ornamental landscaping in celebrity-studded Montecito adds to fire danger

Ornamental landscaping in celebrity-studded Montecito adds to fire danger
A chopper dumps water on brush above a home on Toro Canyon Road in Montecito as the Thomas fire burns closer. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Many homes in the moneyed hills of Montecito and other communities along the southern Santa Barbara County coast are lined with lush ornamental vegetation intended to increase privacy for those living in the homes.

But this type of lush landscaping is also posing a fire risk as the massive Thomas fire swept into the area this week.

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Firefighters have so far been able to keep the flames out of the major population centers along the coast. But the conditions on the ground — heavy vegetation, narrow winding roads, steep terrain and homes in close proximity to each other — create a dangerous situation.

“There is a huge risk right now. We have live fire, and a lot of fire, on that front country,” said Santa Barbara City Fire Department spokeswoman Amber Anderson. “The potential for it to push down into urbanized areas is huge.”

Towering eucalyptus trees, whose sap and bark are highly flammable, can be found in the area, Anderson said.

Juniper trees, California pepper trees, and pine trees are also common in the Montecito area. All are flammable.

Tall and narrow Italian cypress trees are popular in the area, too, because they can offer privacy. Anderson said wooden fences are not popular in Santa Barbara, as homeowners prefer natural vegetation.

“That is putting flammable fuel that is ready and willing and wants to burn in between those structures," she said. "It makes it very dangerous for firefighters to implant themselves into those neighborhoods to do structure protection.”

Montecito has over the last few decades become a favorite spot of celebrities, making it one of the most affluent communities in America. Those who own homes there include Oprah Winfrey, Rob Lowe and Ellen DeGeneres.

The area is highly susceptible to wildfires, which occur every few years. A 2008 fire threatened the community and badly damaged the home of actor Christopher Lloyd, forcing the caretaker to flee for his life.

The city of Santa Barbara bans certain types of vegetation, including cypress, eucalyptus, juniper and pine, from high fire hazard areas. Montecito, which is in unincorporated Santa Barbara County, does not have such restrictions.

The Montecito Fire Protection District's wildfire protection plan notes that Montecito's age and semirural character pose other problems for firefighters: Some addresses are not clearly visible from the road; street signs are not lighted; tight spaces make turning around difficult for a large convoy of firetrucks.

The 2016 city plan notes that while Montecito is an “idyllic and highly desirable place to live and visit,” the residents often overlook the fact “that the area is highly prone to large wildfires.”

“The combination of hot and dry Mediterranean climate, highly ignitable vegetation, numerous fire ignitions and human development create significant potential for a major disaster,” the plan says.

In 2008, embers from an abandoned bonfire above Montecito were pushed downhill by swift sundowner winds. The conflagration, known as the Tea fire, destroyed 210 homes in Santa Barbara and Montecito.

“We don't want the fire anywhere close to Montecito,” said Andrew Madsen, a Los Padres National Forest public affairs officer.

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The massive value of the homes in the area is not lost on firefighters.

“I don’t know where you would find more value at risk,” Madsen said.

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