The cool, crisp autumn air gently rolling through campus belies the persistent threat lurking in the hillsides that surround Cal Poly Pomona: wildfires.
In past decades, wildfire season was confined to the sweltering summer months and the threat diminished as the weather cooled. The effects of carbon pollution have altered that cycle.
California is in the grip of an unrelenting 10-year drought, making wildfires a year-round menace and prevention a year-round chore. Even in mild weather, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) recorded 26 wildfires of various sizes from Oct. 3, 2020 to Dec. 12, 2020. Last January, a wildfire erupted in the barren hillsides just north of the San Bernardino Freeway and could be seen from campus. California averages 8,000 wildfires a year and that number is growing.
To mitigate the threat of wildfires and protect campus infrastructure and resources, members of the Landscape Services department within Facilities Planning & Management (FP&M) volunteered to work overtime on eight Saturdays in scorching summer conditions when temperatures routinely hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
FP&M performed wildfire mitigation work out of existing budget resources to safeguard buildings, university assets and the campus community. The work stretched from the Walnut city border above Parking Lot J and the campus reservoir to the hillsides around The Collins College of Hospitality Management to the historic Kellogg House and the trails below the landmark.
“We’re not specifically budgeted for fire mitigation. Our normal routine is for all our 40 hours on campus to be dedicated to landscape maintenance work,” said Brian Lake, the interim manager of Landscape Services. “These new wildfire mitigation duties are in addition to our normal routine.”
Crews that numbered from 10 to 14 spent Saturdays clearing roads for fire vehicle access, cutting dead trees and removing tinder-dry brush. Not only did crew members have to cope with searing heat, they also faced trip-and-fall hazards in uneven terrain, rattlesnakes, poison oak, hidden beehives, and even coyotes. Even the machinery and tools used in the work, from chainsaws to branch cutters to weed mowers, posed potential hazards but landscape crews are trained in the safe operation of these tools.
In previous years, Landscape Service crews would receive a work order to clear a 30-wide firebreak along the border with the City of Walnut. That was the extent of wildfire mitigation. A case of serendipity at the Long Beach Landscape Expo in 2019 changed the mindset and approach to wildfire prevention.
Lake and Landscape Service crew members attended a presentation on wildfire mitigation by Douglas Kent. They found out later that Kent is an adjunct professor at the Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies and an expert on creating fire-resistant landscapes to combat wildfires and asked him to assess the campus for vulnerabilities.
Landscape Services took Kent’s advice in earnest and began to tackle areas where wildfire mitigation would have the most impact. Kent’s campus strategy focused on road access, fire-hardening structures, clearing the first 5 feet around a building, and defensible spaces around a structure.
When it came to road access, crews hacked back overgrown vegetation on a path leading to the Walnut city border firebreak and cleared overgrown brush on a fire access road that starts near the Music Building and leads up to the Collins College complex. Clearing the road also got rid of dry brush and weeds that would have been fuel for a fire.
Fire-hardening structures, clearing debris from around a building and defensible spaces are also on the checklist of Landscape crews. That means performing tasks such as clearing pine needles and leaves from roofs to making sure that flammable materials are not stacked against a building.
“Wildfires can be infrequent and out of mind, but the hazards are with us every day given our location. Facilities is tasked with maintaining and protecting our buildings, that includes wildfires to do our part to keep the campus community safe,” said Aaron Klemm, Senior Associate Vice President of Facilities Planning & Management. “The cost of prevention is much lower than the cost of rebuilding.”
Fire mitigation crews also cleared areas around campus assets such as Kellogg House and the immense 500,000-gallon water tank and communications tower on a hill overlooking the campus. An access road to the water tank and tower was cleared and a defensible space was widened. Dead trees were cut down and dry vegetation was cleared to make the trails below Kellogg House navigable.
Kent wrote the manual titled “Firescaping: Protecting Your Home With a Fire-Resistant Landscape” (second edition) and is a renowned expert in wildfire mitigation. In August, he went on a tour of sites where crews performed wildfire mitigation work.
“They’ve made a huge difference in both the ability to flee and fight and to protect assets. It’s a magnificent endeavor. What I saw was a ton of work and that’s what it takes if you’re going to beat fire,” said Kent. “You have to come in with that kind of grit and energy. You can see it in all the work that was put into wildfire mitigation.”
Much of the intense work on fire mitigation for the year concluded right before the start of the fall semester. Fire season might still be measured in months on a calendar, but the task of prevention is a year-round job. Some tasks that don’t seem to be related to wildfire prevention actually are important chores, such as applying chemicals to slow unwanted plant growth, mowing weeds in the summer, monitoring the proximity of tree branches to buildings, and cleaning roofs in the fall after trees shed their leaves.
For wildfire mitigation to continue to reap benefits to the campus, the work of crews needs to continue on a year-round schedule. That kind of sustained work requires relief from normal job duties or additional funding or grants to adapt to the changed climate that impacts all students, faculty and staff on campus.
“As these efforts have increased and improved, we’re doing these extra tasks as time and funding allows. So much of this work happens out on the perimeter of campus that no one is aware we’re even doing it.” Lake said. “But it’s a very vital and important safety function that we’re performing to keep the campus community and campus assets safe.”