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Sure-Fire Answer

County Crews Step In When Owners Fail to Clear Brush

July 03, 1999|MATT SURMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Cynthia Pinzon could see the flames creep closer to her Newbury Park home. And she could also see them stop, as if pushing up against an invisible wall.

The seven-acre fire earlier this week burned near Pinzon's neighborhood, lapping against the edges of her development and the Stagecoach Inn Museum. Thanks, in part, to a program of cutting back weeds, the Ventura County Fire Department said, the flames never bridged a 100-foot gulf to her home.

That means Capt. Edward Gavirati and other members of the fire hazard reduction team are doing their jobs. A firefighter at the Rincon Fire Station, Gavirati spends several months a year enforcing a Ventura County program that requires 17,000 property owners to hack any brush and weeds within 100 feet of their structures.

"Fire will run where the fuel is," he said. "It's like driving on the street. You run out of gas, that's as far as you're going."

The Fire Department sends out notices in April, and later a reminder, to comply by the June 1 deadline. Ventura County has about 99% compliance, fire officials said.

The remaining 150 property owners who don't clear their property of fire fuel must allow a brush clearance crew contracted by the county do the work: at a minimum cost of about $735.

A day after Tuesday's Newbury Park fire, Gavirati's team walked a rocky stretch of brush behind a row of houses in the area. The crew wrenched dry weeds from the ground.

The charred hill on Ventu Park Road was visible not too far away, a clear path of black destruction met by green and yellow.

Brian Francis, who lives on well-maintained property adjacent to the brambly hill, had a front-row view of the fire. He was glad to see the orange-vested team, supervised by Gavirati, working nearby.

"We have all this brush down here, and the wind was blowing this way," he said. "We were worried about embers."

Typically, however, owners aren't so happy to see Gavirati and his crew arrive.

"They have a lot of different reasons [they haven't cleared the brush]," he said. "I feel for them a little bit, but one way or another we'll get our 100 feet."

Gavirati has heard every excuse, and admittedly the fees can be steep. The highest so far this year was $11,000 for a particularly large plot of land, he said, but he has a job to do--even if it means asking for help. He once was met by a woman so irate he had to call for police backup.

Last year the county and its contractor took in about $135,000, about 15% of what the county collected a decade ago. The Fire Department attributes the drop to a renewed concentration on educating property owners about the importance of weed abatement.

While a few property owners ignore cleanup notices, or say they never received them, a handful lodge formal protests, said Kathie Zirretta, manager of the county's fire hazard reduction program. Bills are sometimes adjusted when property ownership is in question. A small number of cases are appealed before the county Board of Supervisors.

The county is in the midst of fire season, which began June 1, a period marked by several brush fires and last week's 600-acre blaze in Los Padres National Forest, northeast of Ojai. Some of the county's fastest-growing areas are those most prone to fire, around Ojai and in the east county where developers have pushed out into the dry, scrubby hills.

"We're migrating into the urban wildlife," Zirretta said. "We're living out in the brush."

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