San Dieguito restoration project helping to reduce fire risk


Since September, the San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy’s Fairbanks Ranch and Rancho Santa Fe Invasive Plant Removal and Stream Enhancement Project has been going strong, working to remove highly flammable and invasive plants such as Arundo donax (giant cane), that have infested the area along the river, leading to increased fire risk and degrading the native habitat.

Following the Witch Creek Fire in 2007, the invasive non-native vegetation like Arundo, eucalyptus, tamarisk, pampas grass and palm trees have grown back in greater numbers between the communities of Fairbanks Ranch and Rancho Santa Fe and the project is a huge collaborative undertaking to reduce those potential fire hazards.

The project has been ongoing since 2015, starting at first with just 10 acres, said Jack Hughes, conservation manager for the San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy. Since then, several private landowners have signed on and the project area has expanded to over 168 acres.

“A big part of what we’re doing is removing invasive plants and allowing natives to grow which act as a natural fire break,” Hughes said.

The goal is to remove all substantial stands of these invasive species by 2022.

The project is a partnership between the San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy, the California Native Plant Society, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, the Fairbanks Ranch Association, the Rancho Santa Fe Association, Rancho Santa Fe Fire Department and local homeowners.

Caitlin Kreutz, the horticulturist for the Rancho Santa Fe Association has worked as a project liaison, talking to Covenant landowners along the river about getting involved in the project to help remove all substantial stands of these highly flammable plants.

“The project is a really good example of how a tragic event like the Witch Creek Fire and all of the fires after it can bring together a lot of different groups and people to work together to do something positive, reducing fire risk and enhancing the native habitat,” said Jack Hughes, conservation manager for the San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy.

“So many times after something like a fire happens, we hear ‘We’ve got to do something.’ Here, something is actually getting done,” Kreutz said.

Kreutz said they owe so much to dedicated volunteers who have contributed nearly 2,000 hours to the project, people like Bob Byrnes and Arne Johanson with the California Native Plant Society, and hard-working crews from American Conservation Experience (ACE), who travel all over the country to complete projects like trail restorations, fuel reduction and invasive removals.

Local homeowners have contributed approximately 600 hours of labor and organizing.

The work is funded by grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services ($55,300), the Southern California Wetlands Recovery Project ($23,000) and recently $10,000 from the Patagonia store in Cardiff-by-the-Sea.

The work began on Sept. 15 and will continue through March 2018. On Oct. 30, ACE crews were attacking a stand of Arundo near a private Rancho Santa Fe horse ranch along the San Dieguito River. The Arundo, which looks almost like giant bamboo, has grown up to 30 feet in some locations.

“It’s a nasty one, it takes up lot of water and resources from the river valley that native plants, birds and animals could use,” Kreutz said. “It reduces biodiversity.”

“It soaks up all the water and then in the summer it dries up and is so dry it’s like kindling and that’s when it burns,” Byrnes said.

While originally brought to the country to act as erosion control 200 years ago, the plant has now become a huge problem and fire risk.

“We have huge stands of it up and down the river and it acts as a wick in a fire,” Hughes said, noting that removing it can reduce the intensity of a fire and make it easier to control.

Crews use chainsaws to cut down the Arundo and then it is chopped up. In addition to being a high fire risk and a water hog, the plant is also pesky — it grows extremely fast.

After just two weeks, volunteer workers noted that green stalks were sprouting out of a chopped down area. Due to that fact, the crews must return several times to treat the plants until they can get ahead of it and the natives are able to gain an advantage and flourish.

“It is a long-term project, it’s hands-on and there will be a lot of work done over the next four to five years” said Hughes, noting that all of the work is permitted by the San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy and U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

In this particular area of Rancho Santa Fe, the highly flammable and large stand grows extremely close to the horse ranch’s buildings.

Getting rid of the stand will create important defensible space for the safety of property and animals and give the native plants a chance to take over. A list of native and fire-resistant plants to replace the invasive species has been prepared for landowners as another goal of the project is to educate residents on how they can improve wildlife habitat on their private properties and create fire-safe landscapes around their homes.

Hughes and Kreutz said they would like to connect with any property owners in Fairbanks Ranch and Rancho Santa Fe with land surrounding or adjacent to the San Dieguito River that are interested in having invasive plants removed. Those interested can contact Jack Hughes at Kreutz acts as the project liaison for Association members, contact her at

The Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District can also provide recommendations for vegetation management and defensible space near homes and buildings, learn more at