To Our Ojai Community:

Thank you for your patience and understanding as we recover from the damage from the Thomas Fire on our trails. In the coming months trails will likely open and close depending on rain and changing trail conditions. Click here for current information and trail notifications »

Life after the Thomas Fire

By on February 26, 2018 in Around Our Valley, News, Newsletter

Letter from Executive Director Brian Stark:

It’s been a busy two months since the Thomas Fire burned through four of our preserves, burning 1,500 acres of land and affecting 20 of our 27 miles of local trails. Our initial response was to ensure the safety of our staff and to offer mutual support during extended evacuations due to both fire and smoke. It would be two weeks before we could send staff out to the preserves to begin assessing damage. During this time, our staff gathered advice from other land trusts that have faced similar damages, researched fire recovery science, and spent countless hours getting accurate information out to the public regarding damages, trail closures and conditions, and anticipated recovery tactics. I couldn’t be more proud of our staff for their flexibility, adaptability, and their commitment to ensuring the safety of our preserve visitors.

To create a disaster response plan, we mapped burned signs, trail blockages, landslides, rock falls, burned culverts, missing bridges, damaged kiosks, and other hazards. Professional arborists assessed hazard trees, which we proactively removed for visitor safety. Within days, our staff and some of our most experienced trail volunteers had re-opened most of the trails. We know that our work has just begun here as there are many signs and two bridges to replace—and we face continuing threats from winter rains and landslides. While almost all of the trails are open, a lot of work is still needed to make them sustainable.

We chose to prioritize trail openings because we know how important these lands are to our community and that many people felt a need to experience the land in its new state. The Thomas Fire is now part of the story of Ojai, and this story will be told for decades to come.

We encourage you to visit the land, create a relationship, and mark this time in your memory. The fact that people care so much for this land is not surprising, and their reasons for seeing it now are the same reasons that the OVLC and our members work so hard to protect it. This land belongs to us all.

I think it is safe to say that the Thomas Fire threw our annual work plan and budget out the window. In a normal year, our restoration crew would be planting new plants on our grant-funded restoration projects. This year, they are working on the trails as most of our active restoration projects at the Ventura River Preserve have burned. Critical restoration infrastructure, such as our expansive irrigation system, which melted, will need to be re-built before we can once again work on these projects.

So far, the OVLC’s monetary damages total about $140,000. With the outpouring of community support, however, we are picking up the pieces and working on recovery activities. We can’t thank our members enough for coming to our aid with their generous donations. We also welcome 72 new donors that made their first contribution to the OVLC these past two months. You have made it possible for us to allocate so much additional staff time to recovery activities. We are also grateful for those that have offered their time to help. Since the fire, over 200 of you have signed up to volunteer on projects ranging from removing melted irrigation pipe, placing signs to remind people to stay on trails, replacing a melted culvert, cutting and removing over 30 fallen trees from the trails, and stabilizing washed out trails. These activities will continue for some time and we hope to meet all of you on a project soon.

Many are now asking what is next for the preserves. As we recover, we will need your help. There are a few basic ways everyone can help the recovery. First, Weed Don’t Seed! While spreading seed on burned land seems like a good idea, the native plant seeds needed for the recovery are already in the soil. Adding seed adds competition and alters nature’s course. The biggest threats to our native plants are non-native plants (what we call weeds). Removing these is the best way to allow natural recovery. We will organize weeding days in the upcoming months, so please make sure you have signed up on our website as a volunteer if you are interested in helping with the recovery.

Next, please stay on the trails. For nature to recover, it needs to be un-trampled. Please observe all trail closures. Closed trails are closed for a reason and accessing them makes the damage worse and harder to repair. Staying off them shows you care, and nature needs to know you care.

Finally, keep looking after each other and those that lost so much more. This will be a long recovery and we need one another.

As we look back to the fire and how most of our community was spared, it has reminded us of how conservation can be part of our community’s preparation for future fires. While the fire was burning, fire personnel were able to easily access our preserves and use them to stage firefighting efforts and to create defensible areas. Visitors to the Ventura River Preserve will see where bulldozers came through the preserve to create defensible spaces. These impacts can be repaired so much easier than a home. In addition, purchasing the Ventura River Preserve prevented the development of many homes on that land, and reduced the exposure of even more homes to fire loss. A few years ago, the OVLC removed over 3,000 dead orange trees which could have changed the intensity of the burn on the preserve. We will be looking at fire buffer lands with greater interest as a conservation priority in the future.

The OVLC is constantly evaluating our land management methods to make our preserve boundaries and restoration project sites safer for fire responders and the public. Already, the OVLC completes annual brush management wherever our preserve lands lie within the defensible space areas around buildings—even those that are not on our property. Approximately $25,000 is budgeted annually for this work and we coordinate closely with fire department officials in ensuring safety. The OVLC’s Arundo donax removal project also proved helpful in reducing the spread of fire along Creek Road and San Antonio Creek. Streams normally provide fire buffers as the vegetation is less flammable, but plants like Arundo carry volatile oils that are known to burn quite severely. An inspection after the fire revealed that stream corridors proved to be much more resilient to fire damage, and in most cases stopped the spread of the fire across the creek, where the Arundo had been removed. In contrast, the greatest damage to the native steam-side vegetation was where Arundo was not removed. Managing lands for fire resiliency is a benefit for the entire community.

As we continue our work in the coming months and years, we hope to remain engaged with everyone in our community on this effort. We welcome your questions and concerns and hope you will feel free to contact us.



Brian Stark
Executive Director

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