Ventura County fared relatively well during last fall's Southern California firestorms, but the towering blazes that swept across 172,000 acres locally served notice of the need to cut brush and grass away from homes before the next fire season, which officially arrived last week after another dry winter.
Most of the 38 homes destroyed in Ventura County -- at the northern tip of a 200-mile string of fires -- were lost because vegetation was too close to homes, officials concluded.
"The people out in Bell Canyon stood on the hill and watched the fires jump the  freeway," said county fire prevention officer Craig Morgan. "They thought it was coming right on after them. And it really shook them up."
That's one reason that this season Morgan expects extraordinary compliance from about 14,500 Ventura County homeowners whose properties lay at the so-called wild land-urban interface, where open space meets residential development.
"Once we get a fire like this, they comply real well for a couple of years," Morgan said.
After last fall's fires, Ventura County was cited by state officials as a model of how to avoid catastrophe by requiring that weeds and brush be cleared for at least 100 feet around structures.
After studying dwelling losses in the fall fires, local fire officials are now recommending a 200-foot clearance in situations where homes are isolated, water is scarce, dwellings are at the top or bottom of a hill and where nearby brush is heavy.
That compares with a minimum state requirement of 30 feet in very high fire-hazard areas, a rule that was generally used in the fire zones of San Bernardino County and in some burn areas of San Diego County. Those counties lost most of the nearly 3,500 dwellings burned last fall.
Even before the late-October fires charred the fringes of Fillmore, Piru, Simi Valley and Santa Paula, Ventura County property owners had achieved near-record compliance under a 27-year-old clearance program.
Last year, the county Fire Department was forced to clear just 56 parcels using paid contractors, at a cost of $115,000. The record low was 47 lots at a cost of $89,000 in 2002. That was a huge drop from 1991, when about 1,000 unresponsive property owners were charged $1 million in clearance costs by the county.
"We expect our numbers to go down again," said county Fire Marshal Diane Morgan. "We're making phone or personal contact to explain in person what the costs will be if we clear it for them."
Owners of the 14,500 parcels were first notified of clearance requirements in April. After crews check out the parcels again by mid-June, inspectors will post weed-covered properties with bright yellow notices of noncompliance, and violators will be notified a second time. If the weeds remain, county contractors will clear them.
If that occurs, the contractor's bill is sent to the owner along with a $635 administrative fee to cover the cost of the inspection program.
"It's so much cheaper to clear it themselves," said Diane Morgan. "But when I go to the [Board of Supervisors] in April, they always say that the cost of enforcement should not be borne by [complying] property owners."
A new wrinkle in the county program is the inclusion of homes in the Los Padres National Forest. "We're taking over an additional 500 lots in the national forest," Diane Morgan said. "With the extreme year we had last year, and dry conditions this year, we want to make sure they get cleared to the county standards."
Those lots are in the Upper Ojai Valley, in the hills at the edge of Ojai, as well as in the Lockwood Valley area between California 33 and the Golden State Freeway. The county began to include the Los Padres parcels last year, and encountered some resistance from residents who are not used to the county's strict clearance rules, officials said.
An Ojai couple who lived in the hills along Foothill Road refused to clear their property to county standards and got a $12,649 bill, said enforcement officer Jeff Carter.
"They said they live in Oregon part of the year, and they've always cleared this much, and that was all they were going to do," he said. "So it came down to us having to do it. There were a lot of shrubs, and grass and trees needed to be skirted up and limbed. Their property was right on the interface area. The gentleman below spent $8,500 himself to put his property in compliance."
It's not unusual for property owners to ignore county notices then become upset when they are billed for the work, Carter said. "I had a lady the other day say, 'Why don't you guys just cut it. We're real busy.' I told her about the $635 administrative fee, and she said, 'Oh my god, it's cheaper if I do it.' "
He said he got a call a few days ago from the owner of a vacant lot surrounded by homes in Bell Canyon, which had routinely been cleared each year by the county. The owner was charged nearly $3,000 in 2003.
"He called me to make sure we had his address right and that his lot passed inspection," Carter said. "He said he wanted to make sure we didn't cut it again."