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Chief Says Brush Laws Saved Homes : Weed abatement: County programs are credited for limiting the losses during the Green Meadow fire.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mountaintop homes untouched by the Thousand Oaks wildfire stood Tuesday like solitary islands in a charred black sea--examples of how property can be saved from destruction when properly fireproofed.

Ventura County Fire Department officials said the county’s strict weed-abatement programs and building guidelines helped hundreds of residences stand unscathed against the largest wild land blaze this year in Southern California--the Green Meadow fire.

“The majority of acreage burned throughout Southern California in the firestorms occurred in Ventura County, and homes burned were minimal in Ventura County,” Fire Chief George E. Lund said at a press conference.

While hundreds of residences were lost in densely populated areas overrun by flames in places such as Malibu and Laguna Beach, only 39 houses and mobile homes and 80 outbuildings were destroyed in Ventura County, fire officials said.

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The Ventura County ordinance requiring brush to be cleared to 100 feet from buildings “has been very effective in controlling the fires,” Lund said. “It allowed our firefighters to take stands in areas they might not otherwise have been able to.”

Lund and other fire officials touted their brush-clearing rules as stricter than most counties, which require a 30-foot clearance. But they also conceded that wind-tossed embers and flames sometimes jumped across the 100-foot firebreaks and destroyed ridge top residences during the firestorms despite the weed abatement plan.

The Ventura County Fire Department sends notices announcing the rules in April to 21,000 property owners in the county fire district, which encompasses six cities and the unincorporated areas. By June 1, nearly 97% usually comply, clearing away brush that otherwise could help wildfires jump to their homes and businesses, said Terry Raley, the department’s wild land fire officer.

Those who ignore the rules get billed for brush-clearing costs anyway, plus a $221 administrative fee after fire officials contract to have the brush removed, he said.

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Meanwhile, county fire inspectors are reviewing property owners’ plans for rebuilding in the burned neighborhoods, Raley said. Those plans must be approved by the Fire Department before building permits can be issued, he said.

The department wants to make sure new buildings meet fire and safety codes that require roads wide enough to carry firetrucks, water supplies deep enough for firefights, and architecture and building materials that are fire-resistant.

The department also is working with the California Department of Forestry on plans to set 13 controlled fires in Ventura County over the next five years to deprive future fires of fuel.

Such controlled burns are risky and unpopular, but they cost only $17 per acre to conduct, contrasted with the $200 to $300 per acre that it cost to put out the Green Meadow fire--not including the cost of property damage, Raley said.

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“It’s not a true science,” Lund said. “There’s a lot of luck and art that goes on with it.”

Fire officials pointed to a map where the Green Meadow fire had stopped. The flames died at the edge of a large section of land near Point Mugu that had been stripped of fuel during a controlled burn.

Reporters were then taken on a tour of blackened, mountainous Deer Creek Road north of Pacific Coast Highway, where houses stood untouched on patches of unburned ground that had been cleared of brush by property owners.

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“That house on the point there is a prime example,” Firefighter Dan Preston said, pointing to a saltbox log cabin skirted by a 100-foot-wide ring of unburned land where the owner had pruned the surrounding brush down to stubble.

Green shoots poked through the ash, signs that brush is already growing back.

“You look at these hillsides now, and they do resemble moonscapes--nothing is living,” Preston said, gazing at the ragged, black ridges. “But if we get a good light rain this winter, the growth will come back and soon it’ll look like the hills of Ireland again.”

Kathy Brown, who owns a home spared by fire on nearby Pacific View, drove up and praised the firefighters and the county’s brush-clearing ordinance.

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“The firemen said if I hadn’t done that, we would have been gone,” said Brown, whose home stood through the fires as it has for the past 16 years. “At 5 o’clock in the morning, the whole ridge was in flames. . . . But fire, water, storm--I wouldn’t live any other place.”


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