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Newport Beach keeps an eye on Buck Gully’s brush during fire ‘season’ that runs all year

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Newport Fire Marshal Kevin Bass discusses brush and defensible space during a tour of Buck Gully Thursday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Buck Gully hasn’t burned. It’s not in the path of the dry, whipping Santa Ana winds that drive Southern California wildfires and its vegetation is kept largely verdant thanks to a perennial stream.

The Newport Beach Fire Department still keeps an eye on it, though, and is considering updating codes to allow less vegetation that could feed flames.

Buck Gully, which straddles Corona del Mar and Newport Coast, is one of the areas of town that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, considers a “very high fire hazard severity zone.” Property owners in these zones must clear at least 100 feet of defensible space — a buffer that can act as a fire break and give firefighters a relatively safe place to post up to battle flames.

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A view of Buck Gully looking toward the ocean from Poppy Avenue.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Newport Fire Marshal Kevin Bass stood at the Buck Gully trailhead at Poppy and Fifth avenues in CdM Thursday to point out the good and the better about foliage around homes.

Upper Buck Gully is kept in check by homeowners associations on private property and the city outside of those boundaries. A home on Sandcastle Drive, on the gully’s western rim, showed an example of defensible space, Bass explained: light ground cover and a few low shrubs for about 100 feet downhill.

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He turned on his boot heel to face the rest of the gully, from the Poppy Avenue trailhead to Little Corona Beach, that is under individual property owner control roughly down to the city-maintained streambed. The brush was higher and closer together there, with less gapping. Showpiece backyards varied over the next half-mile until the gully petered out steps from the sand and tide pools.

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A view of Buck Gully from Little Corona Beach, looking toward the Crown Cove assisted-living facility.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

One beachside home had thick brush carpeting the slope below its picket fence in rich, varied shades of green.

“It’s beautiful. If I didn’t have a fire to worry about, I like it,” Bass said. “I have a fire to worry about.”
The homeowner isn’t violating codes. Nobody is, as none have been cited.

But Bass, who joined Newport’s fire staff this year, said the codes are perhaps generous.

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Property owners must keep 100 feet of defensible space around structures, but not beyond property lines. Fuel management should be most intense within the first 30 feet, and trees must be trimmed if within 10 feet of a chimney outlet. Buildings should be kept free of “adjacent” dead or dying wood, and roofs must be free of leaves, needles and other plant matter.

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Homes on a hillside in lower Buck Gully where it meets the beach show examples of good defensible space, left, and less so on the right.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Buck Gully is geographically fortunate. It picks up moist coastal winds that, even during the intense Santa Ana events of the last few weeks, have felt like a light breeze. The stream keeps plants plentiful, but also full of moisture.

Upper Buck Gully has a popular, city-maintained hiking and biking trail. The middle and lower parts of the gully lack easy access.

Historically, the area has avoided fire. But catastrophic wildfires in California have been more intense and further-reaching, Bass noted.

Other local high-risk areas include Evening Canyon, parts of Spyglass Hill and the bluff side of the Back Bay, according to Cal Fire’s maps.

“The threat has been determined,” Bass said. “We have to work with it.”

Bass and Fire Chief Jeff Boyles will host an informational meeting Tuesday covering hazard mitigation, vegetation management and fire codes. The city will use feedback from this meeting and another in December to tighten the codes.

IF YOU GO

What: Newport Beach Fire Department wildland fire informational meeting

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Where: Oasis Senior Center, 801 Narcissus Ave., Corona del Mar

When: Tuesday, 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.

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