S.M. Mountain Parks Officials Upset Over Firebreaks Cut Through Nature Preserves

Times Staff Writer

Parks administrators in the Santa Monica Mountains are doing a slow burn over the destruction of nature preserves south of Agoura Hills and Thousand Oaks by firefighters who used bulldozers to carve firebreaks during recent brush fires.

The Los Angeles County Fire Department bulldozed freeway-width swaths across pristine meadows and cut narrower firebreaks through scenic, hilly rock outcroppings when October brush fires burned into three parks.

The bulldozers destroyed most of the nearly extinct native grass in one park, obliterated a popular hiking trail in another and created severe erosion problems in the third, parks officials and environmentalists said.

Parks administrators have called on volunteers to help repair the damage--and want a summit meeting between themselves and fire officials to limit future bulldozing. Fire officials said they are amenable to drawing up a first-ever master firefighting plan for the growing public parkland.

Sight Made Him 'Heartsick'

"I was heartsick when I saw what they'd done," said Ranger Ron Jones, who patrols 7,000-acre Malibu Creek State Park in Agoura, where a meadow was damaged and the hiking trail destroyed.

"I saw more damage done in two hours than in the seven years I've been working here," Jones said. "And here I've been citing people for cutting little branches . . . I was more than heartsick."

Two of the three stands of rare Santa Susana tar weed grass known to be growing at the 642-acre Charmlee Regional County Park near Encinal Canyon were destroyed by a bulldozer that cut a mile-long firebreak, said Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation officials.

"We were furious when we saw what had been done," said Frank Hovore, county parks natural areas administrator. "It's like a six-lane highway where it crosses the meadow. It's going to stand out as a big scar in a few years when the rest of the park looks nice."

Hovore said the tar weed would have handily survived the brush fire that burned into the county park on Oct. 14 if the bulldozer had not wiped out the plant's seed beds.

Fire department bulldozers also cut firebreaks across two National Park Service sites south of Thousand Oaks, creating potential washouts in the Yellow Hill and Malibu Springs nature areas, federal parks administrators said.

Race Against Winter

Nancy Ehorn, assistant superintendent for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, said the park service has begun emergency repairs and replanting to head off erosion this winter.

Officials of all three park agencies said Tuesday they plan to ask fire officials to meet with them to map firebreak plans before this year's brush-fire season arrives this summer.

"The fire department has responsibility for fire protection. But they probably did some unnecessary bulldozing," said Bud Getty, superintendent of Malibu Creek State Park. "They cut five or six miles of 'dozer line. In a big rain, the erosion would be tremendous."

Fire officials said Tuesday they are willing to hammer out a fire protection plan.

"That's been done with the Forest Service," said Ray Shackleford, an assistant county fire chief in charge of the Santa Monica Mountains area. "They have predesignated areas that everybody knows up front that bulldozers are not allowed in without special permission."

But Shackleford said he was surprised that parks officials did not complain of the bulldozing at the time of the fires. Three mountain blazes that began Oct. 14 blackened 11,400 acres.

"It's awfully easy, several months later, to criticize decisions made while fighting a fire," he said. "I agree 100% that we should sit down and discuss this issue. But somebody should have said something at the time."

Parks workers say they were too busy during the fire to confront the bulldozer operators.

Jones, the state park ranger, said he had to evacuate 50 members of a movie crew filming deep within Malibu Creek State Park and another 30 park visitors before he could turn his attention to the bulldozing. By then, the firefighters were "tearing up Reagan Meadow pretty bad" and had destroyed the rocky Cistern Trail, a popular wildflower hiking route off Mulholland Highway.

Issue of Liability

"There's also the liability if we say they can't put a firebreak in and the fire goes on and burns a house. The fire department will say we wouldn't let them fight it. They are the experts in fighting fires," Jones said.

Tim Thomas, a National Park Service ranger who said he witnessed some of the firebreak bulldozing on federal land and knows "it wasn't necessary," said he also felt helpless to interfere with firefighters.

Meanwhile, volunteers planted 1,200 sprigs of native grass in the meadow, once owned by Ronald Reagan in his acting days, and built erosion control barriers along bulldozed ridges.

Explained Sierra Club member Rick Recht as he repaired a deeply gouged bulldozer scar: "We've just scratched the surface."

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