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A powerful partnership: How Fairbanks Ranch and the RSF community formed a unique relationship to fight wildfire risk

Urban Corps members planting trees
Urban Corps members planting trees

(Courtesy)

Were you around town in October 2007 or May 2014?

If so, you remember both wildfires: the Bernardo Fire (2014) and the Witch Creek Fire (2007), which burned nearly 200,000 acres and 37 homes in the Rancho Santa Fe area.

Fairbanks Ranch residents Carey and Bernie Simkin were definitely here in 2014. Their home, perched atop the San Dieguito River Valley, nearly always makes the news when a fire comes roaring down. Luckily for everyone living in a severe fire risk area, once Carey Simkin decides that something needs to be done, she doesn’t rest until she finds an answer. Through hard work, research and ultimately a family contact, she found Clark Winchell of the Department of US Fish and Wildlife, who just happened to have some grant money available for habitat re-establishment. It turns out that over the years, a valley that once held an actively running stream within a natural riparian habitat, had not only dried up significantly, but had also been clogged with 18-foot stands of the highly flammable and invasive reed Arundo donax. It was clear that the best way to reduce fire risk in the valley would be to eliminate the invasive and re-establish the native plant species. And so, a collaboration was born.

San Dieguito River Valley at Fairbanks Ranch
San Dieguito River Valley at Fairbanks Ranch
(Courtesy)

The San Dieguito River Valley is privately-owned land. One of the first requirements was that homeowners give Right of Entry (ROE) to their property for any work to occur. This was a large challenge and Fairbanks Ranch has to thank the late John Lindholtz for his success in getting every relevant property owner in Fairbanks Ranch to provide a ROE. The danger of having properties that do not allow entry is that the highly flammable species that were so hard to eradicate can find a home on those properties to re-seed, sprout and propagate once more. Removing these plants will be a continuing effort over the years.

As mentioned earlier, Arundo was an early target. If you happened to be in the valley when those plants were at full growth, it was overwhelming. Now, the effort is to locate new shoots and treat them. Pampas grass, tamarisk, palms and eucalyptus are also major targets. A major tree-planting project in Lusardi Canyon will help to repopulate native species, but mostly removing the competing non-natives will allow the more fire-resistant native plants to thrive.

Robert Byrnes dwarfed by a stand of Arundo
Robert Byrnes dwarfed by a stand of Arundo
(Courtesy)

Who is coming into the river valley to perform this work? The San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy is the major organizing player. The overall project is supervised by the California Native Plant Society. Urban Corps brings in lots of boots on the ground for the labor-intensive work. The Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District gets their sawyer training done whenever a eucalyptus needs to be felled. The Rancho Santa Fe community has taken fire prevention so seriously that they created a position dedicated to it. Fairbanks Ranch helps out with Fire Safe Council representation, community participation and private donations. So next time you see a flyer or email asking you to go on a walk in the river valley, we hope you will participate!

— Suzanne Lichter is a member of the Fairbanks Ranch Board of Directors and also serves on the Rancho Santa Fe Southwestern San Dieguito Fire Safe Council.


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