Brushing Up On Brush Clearance
District 7 battles vegetation along the roadside in extremely fire-prone Southern California.
[Click on photos to read captions.]
Fire season is year round in Southern California. Large vegetation fires can occur at any time. For instance, California’s largest fire in recorded history, the Cedar Fire, which burned 273,246 acres, 2820 structures, and killed 15 people in San Diego, started in October 2003. Heavy winter rains this year produced a large yield of vegetation along District 7’s freeways and highways that vegetation dries from the summer heat and can easily catch fire.
To help prevent fires, District 7 spends nearly $1 million a year to clear brush and dedicates several crews to mow, and clear vegetation. Even the California Conservation Corps takes part. Caltrans crews are required to clear up to eight feet from the side of the freeway.
“In some places crews have to clear as far as 200 feet from the freeway if there are residential and commercial structures nearby,” said Deputy Director of Maintenance Dan Freeman. “Along the Sepulveda Pass, for example, crews have to clear vegetation quite far from the businesses and homes,” he said.
“New design ideas such as hardscape and weed matt along metal beam guard rail also helps prevent weed growth,” said Ed Siribodhi, a senior landscape architect.
The type of vegetation can also play a factor in causing fires. Hay, grasses, trees, and other non-native plants can crop up along the roadside due to seeds carried by cargo trucks and other vehicles coming in from different states or countries.
Preventing brush fires can be quite easy, but it takes some education. “Motorists have to be cognizant of their surroundings when pulling off the road,” said Los Angeles County Fire Department Captain Sam Padilla. “Tall grasses can catch fire from the heat of the engine, discarded cigarettes, and hot exhaust pipes.”
Even with the heavy rains, hot weather and winds (even cold and dry weather) can cause vegetation to loose moisture making it susceptible to catching fire.
“With the heavy and late rains this year people have become complacent,” said Daniel Berlant, an information officer with California Department of Fire Protection (CALFIRE). “Lots of fires have started because of vehicles.” Backfiring tailpipes, chains causing sparks while being dragged by an unaware driver, and vehicles have caught fire due to poor maintenance have been culprits in several major (and expensive) wildfires in California.
Tending to 10,500 acres of landscaping is a daunting task for District 7’s maintenance crews. Fortunately, they do have some help.
The Enhanced Landscape Improvement Demonstration Project (ELP) creates a public-private partnership to clear and maintain freeway landscaping at no cost to taxpayers. ELP participants also provide additional aesthetically pleasing landscape. The Adopt-A-Highway program provides an avenue for individuals, organizations, or businesses to help maintain sections of roadside within California's State Highway System. Groups have the option to participate as volunteers or to hire a maintenance service provider to perform the work on their behalf. Additionally, the California Conservation Corps have been requested in the past to help remove dry vegetation. Generally, the Maintenance Division will request the CCC.
As much as Caltrans tries to do its part to clear brush along the freeways to prevent fires, the Department needs the public to be fire safe as well. With millions of motorists on District 7 highways and freeways everyday, everyone must remain vigilant. A bit of education, proper planning and coordination, we can all help to prevent wildfires.