Ventura County Dodged a Bullet

Times Staff Writer

Flames tore through brush faster than Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper had ever seen in his 27-year career. And in the first hours, the wildfires were racing toward thousands of homes in Simi Valley, Moorpark, Fillmore and Piru.

Yet, Ventura County was spared widespread destruction in the fires that struck Southern California last week. Of the 3,000 homes and businesses destroyed, just 38 were in Ventura County, even though more than 172,000 acres burned.

In the fires' aftermath, state and local officials were citing a variety of factors that helped keep Ventura County property damage to a minimum. Strict brush clearance laws, county growth guidelines and the experience and aggressiveness of firefighters all played a role in that success, fire officials and analysts say.

The county's tough brush clearance law was a critical factor, said Bill Peters, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry.

Ventura County requires homeowners to provide a 100-foot clearance around woodland homes each spring. Other counties adhere to the state's 30-foot standard, Peters said. That extra 70 feet "makes a huge difference," he said.

What's more, the weed-abatement ordinance is backed by an aggressive enforcement program, said Craig Morgan, manager of the county's fire hazard reduction program.

Every April, about 14,000 warning notices are sent to property owners.

If a property owner remains in violation after a second warning, then the Fire Department will contract for the brush clearance and place an assessment on the owner's property taxes to recoup the costs, Morgan said. The costs of brush clearance can run from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, not including a $635 administrative fee attached to each bill.

"That usually gets their attention," Morgan said.

Last year, a $49,000 assessment was levied against a Thousand Oaks homeowners' association in a neighborhood of million-dollar estates abutting a volatile fire zone.

The weed abatement program has proven so successful that the number of homeowners cited for violations each year dropped from about 1,000, totaling about $1 million in assessments, in 1991 to 47 last year and less than $100,000 in assessments.

Peters, who lives in San Bernardino County, where the 30-foot-rule is in effect, said aggressive enforcement "makes the law real."

"I've been on a variety of fires up here [in Ventura County] and there has been in most instances minimal damage to property because of that enforcement and because of that 100-foot rule," he said.

Ventura County growth policies also helped. Officials in the 1970s adopted a plan of keeping nearly all commercial and residential development within the boundaries of Ventura County's 10 cities.

That created greenbelt buffers between the cities and limited the growth of residential tracts on unincorporated land -- where much of last week's wildfires occurred. Property damage in turn was limited to a few dozen structures and outbuildings at the fringes of densely packed suburbs.

Ranch properties engulfed at the height of the fires last weekend were in the mountains above Simi Valley and Moorpark, where county growth guidelines allow just one home for every 40 acres.

Peters compared that to the dense construction at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains that was laid waste by fast-moving flames.

Ventura County's fire chief, meanwhile, praised the skill of his firefighters.

On Sunday, 490 firefighters were on the lines, leaving a skeletal staff of 10 to attend to all other fires and emergencies in the county, Roper said. Fire crews from other areas arrived later in the day.

Veterans from the Ventura County force have been through several fires fueled by Santa Ana winds in the past and directed engines to where they knew the flames would be headed, Roper said.

The strategy was to meet the flames before they moved into residential areas, Roper said. Sometimes, though, the fire got there before the trucks did.

"We didn't have enough resources to put a firetruck at every house," Roper said. "They had to triage a situation: 'Can I save it?' And once the fire burned past, they would jump on the engine and go to the next street."

Winds were so fierce that helicopters and air tankers were not of much value in the initial battle, Roper said. In the first frantic hours of the Simi fire, brush was being consumed at 10,000 acres each hour, he said.

"Some people say the fires stopped short of Simi Valley and Moorpark because of a change in the winds," he said. "But we can document that the fire blew across parking lots, golf courses, housing developments and we were still able to stop it. What it took was the firefighters getting between the homes and the flames and aggressively extinguishing them."

If firefighters had been unable to stop the Simi fire at Box Canyon near the Los Angeles County line, it would have continued south, devastating Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks and Oak Park before burning all the way to Malibu, he said.

On the western end of the county, the Piru fire threatened Fillmore, Santa Paula and the Ojai Valley.

"This had the potential of burning just about everything in Ventura County," Roper said.

Times staff writers Amanda Covarrubias and Gregory W. Griggs contributed to this report.

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