Last modified on Oct 19, 2018

Ranch Fire

Ventura County's Ojai Valley has long been considered an area especially susceptible to wildland fire. The valley is known for its high winds and dense vegetation. These conditions were made worse in the winter of 1999 when a lack of rainfall made high intensity wildland fire even more likely.

On the night of December 21, 1999 firefighters got the call that they had long been expecting: Fireworks had ignited the Ranch Fire in the upper Ojai Valley and in its path lay homes, schools and agriculture. As Santa Ana winds roared through the valley, the situation looked dire and left many local residents expecting a terrible disaster to be left in the Ranch Fire's wake.

However, almost seven years earlier a process was started that would ultimately save the community while saving the taxpayers millions of dollars. The Ventura County Fire Protection District's Vegetation Officer started a five-year plan to reduce the threat in areas with the greatest potential for costly damaging wildfires. A large percentage of the cost of the project was provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency after severe firestorms ravaged areas of Southern California in 1993.

The upper Ojai Valley had specifically been included in the plan, and by the spring of 1993 a comprehensive action plan was put together with the cooperation of landowners, the U.S. Forest Service, CAL FIRE, local schools, businesses and residents.

Cooperators used prescribed burns to create a defensible space between vegetation and homes. Further vegetation was cut and stacked in many areas and was burned in low intensity prescribed fires during the winter. Maintenance of this new community protection fuel break was the next issue. Property owners then fenced the area and used livestock to eat the chaparral re-growth. Almost all of the homeowners in the community pitched in by cleaning flammable vegetation from around their homes. Fire department inspectors reported 99 percent compliance with local and state fire hazard clearance laws.

During the first few hours of the incident many success stories unveiled themselves. The weed abatement and pre-fire work made the disaster much less damaging than it otherwise would have been. While 4,400 acres and one home had burned, crews were successful at saving the other 67 homes in the area. Efforts by this committee freed up fire fighting forces to attack the fire before it could enter the community of Ojai. This is an example of how insightful planning and interagency teamwork can save communities from certain destruction by wildland fire.

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