Torrential rain from winter storms may have dampened the fears of summer wildfires, but Landscape Services wasn’t getting lulled into a false sense of security.
Volunteer overtime crews of up to 16 staff members worked five weekends and used chainsaws, hedge trimmers, string trimmers and hand tools to dispose of dry vegetation and clear fire breaks stretching from Cal Poly Pomona’s boundary with the city of Walnut to the historic Kellogg House to the hilltop water tower to the heart of the campus. The wildfire mitigation work started just days after Commencement ceremonies ended.
Those efforts are helping to protect the university’s infrastructure from wildfire threats and ensure the safety of students, faculty and staff as the first heatwave of the season pushed temperatures into the triple-digit range and with the start of the fall semester looming on Aug. 24.
A recent spate of wildfires across Southern California underscores the dangers lurking in the hillsides that surround Cal Poly Pomona. The incidents also provide stark reminders that wildfires are a constant threat in the region.
“By getting the work done earlier in the summer, we make the situation safer on campus,” said Brian Lake, the manager of Landscape Services. “It’s a lot of work so we have to be strategic in what we can do around campus assets.”
Landscape crews took fire mitigation to earnest in 2021, disposing of decades-old vegetation growth that could be quickly ignited by flying embers and clearing clogged roads for firefighting vehicles.
The work provided overdue protection to academic structures from wildfires. Other campus assets also have been beneficiaries. Below Kellogg House, years of overgrown vegetation and felled trees have been cleared. This is also helping to safeguard guests attending social events at the historic building.
Mitigation efforts this season extended beyond the main perimeter of the campus. A “bumper crop” of overgrown weeds and other vegetation has been cleared at the Center for Regenerative Studies so that the land could be reclaimed for study and research projects, said Lake. In addition, fire mitigation work also has been completed at parts of the nearby Lanterman property.
The Division of Administrative Affairs provided funding for the purchase earlier this year of a four-wheel drive rough-terrain riding mower that can trim hillsides, which has helped speed up wildfire mitigation efforts. With the funding, Landscape Services was also able to purchase tools specifically designed for mitigation.
“We appreciate the investment from the university,” Lake said. “These tools will last us a long time and help lessen the danger from wildfires for years to come.”
In addition, crews also are maintaining access to a fire road that starts near the music building (Building 24) and leads to the back slopes of The Collins College of Hospitality Management complex. Without a navigable road, firefighters can’t fight a wildfire breakout.
Wildfire mitigation means more than clearing dry vegetation. Crews also fire-hardened structures by removing debris around buildings to form defensible perimeters. This includes disposing of pine needles and leaves from roofs to making sure that flammable materials such as wooden pallets are not stacked against a building.
Tasks that don’t seem to be associated with wildfire mitigation also play important roles in the overall prevention strategy: applying chemicals to slow unwanted plant growth, mowing weeds in the summer, monitoring the proximity of tree branches to buildings, and sweeping roofs in the fall after trees have shed their leaves.
Facilities Planning & Management has performed the annual wildfire mitigation work out of existing budget resources to protect academic buildings and university assets and safeguard students, faculty and staff. The initial labor-intensive wildfire mitigation efforts have made subsequent work easier and faster to complete.