SANTA BARBARA COUNTY - U.S. Forest Service crews are taking advantage of colder weather and fewer visitors in the Los Padres National Forest to do the dirty work that must be done before fire season arrives.
The Forest Service calls it a "heli-torch" operation.
A helicopter is used to lower a barrel full of gasoline "gel" to ignite a fire that will burn in a controlled setting.
"Because its gelled, it doesn't burn right away", says Forest Service Superintendent Kevin Murray, "its able to get to the ground to get the vegetation on fire and by doing that we don't have to put people in harm's way deep into green vegetation and light a fire and not be able to get away, so by doing that we can apply fire anywhere we want."
In this operation along Highway 166 east of Santa Maria, the controlled burn is about two thousand acres of brush and grassland that make up the last part of a major hazardous fuels reduction project the Forest Service began more than 10 years ago.
The goal is to protect watersheds, water quality and wildlife habitat, provide extra protection of homes in nearby Tepesquet and Pine Canyons and prevent the spread of large scale wildfires.
"Campaign fires that last for weeks", Supt. Murray says, "by doing this we are reducing the fuel hazard, for example the La Brea Fire (in 2009) that was coming from the Sisquoc area, it hit some of our previous burn areas and we were able to hold it."
Heli-torch operations are considered the best option when conducting a controlled burn operation in steep, mountainous terrain like we see in the Los Padres National Forest.
About 60 Forest Service personnel participated in the controlled burn along with two chartered helicopters.
"Either spend, in the big scheme of things, a little money now and avoid the big cost of a large fire and homes destroyed later", Murray says, "or not do anything and let that big fire come through and try to hold it."
The Los Padres National Forest covers nearly two million acres over five counties.
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