Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Agencies Prepare For Major Fire Threat

By Nao Braverman

This summer marks the 13th year efforts by the C.R.E.W. have helped keep the Ojai Valley safe from wildfires

Since the end of May a team of about 12 young people ages 14 to 21 have been hard at work clearing away brush to protect Ojai during what has been predicted as one of the worst fire seasons the valley has ever seen.
With a grant from the U.S. Forest Service through the California Fire Safe Council, and $50,000 in matching funds from the City of Ojai, the Ojai Fire Safe Council is constructing the Ojai Valley Last Defense Fuel Break.
The fuel break, a safety zone with highly flammable growth patches cleared away serves as a buffer to slow down advancing flames, giving fire fighters more leverage, said Wally McCall, a co-founder of the Ojai Fire Safe Council.
Stretching 4.7 miles from the citrus groves north of Meiners Oaks to the eastern end of Gridley Trail, the fuel break will range from 20- to 100-foot wide clearances, depending on the terrain.
Members of C.R.E.W., an Ojai non-profit benefitting at-risk youth, have taken on the laborious task of removing the brush in the scorching summer sun. Crew members from Ojai, Santa Paula and Fillmore, half of them under 17 years old, have begun cutting and clearing areas under the supervision of CREW staff and the Ventura County Fire Department.
This fuel break is being cut in a mosaic pattern rather than a linear path, said McCall, also the chief executive officer of CREW. The C.R.E.W. members will leave all riparian plants and growth that stabilizes the hillside to prevent erosion. All plants that don’t burn well will be left alone, leaving a more visually pleasing landscape than a linear fuel break, he said.
All clearing will be done by hand without any ground disturbance. The team of local youth are working together to cut away decadent brush and using a small chipper to chop it into mulch which they spread over the patches of bare land as ground cover.
In addition to fire safety, fuel breaks can become excellent places to view wildlife, said McCall. Clearing away dry brush and dead plants leaves room for new growth which, in turn, attracts deer, birds and other wild animals, he said.
Teams are currently working at two sites, one at the top of Foothill Road and another at the Gridley Trail gate. McCall expects the entire project will take at least a year to complete.
With funding from the city, cooperation from local land owners and labor provided by C.R.E.W. youth, the fuel break has been a true community effort, said William Castagna, grants manager of the Ojai Valley Fire Safe Council.
After the Day Fire, too close for comfort, and with the upcoming fire season, U.S. Forest Service recognized the importance of the project, said Castagna.
The fuel break is intended not only to protect Ojai homes but also the multitude of orchards which have sustained the valley’s economy for years.

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