AGOURA HILLS, Calif. – Many would not initially consider a tractor a means of fighting fires, but Charlie Whitman has been protecting the Santa Monica Mountains this way for 30 years.
What you need to know
- The fuel treatment programs are focused on 250 hectares in five strategic treatment areas
- The crews also manage 85 acres of defensible space in more than a dozen locations across the Santa Monica National Recreation Area
- Trimming tall grass can reduce the flame length from 20 feet to two
- The crews use tractors and weed whippers to manage fuel in public places
While Whitman was the driving force in fire safety, after decades of service, he hangs the keys.
“You are sorely missed,” said Tara Hallman, trail crew leader, Whitman as he instructed the crew on his final day before retiring.
For his last trip, he carefully selected his favorite tractor, “the one that has the fuel in it,” he says with a laugh.
Fuel is at the heart of Whitman’s work – albeit not the way tractors are run. The entire purpose of his program is to reduce the available fuels so that the area is less combustible.
“Before treatment, the grass could be chest high and the flame length that could be generated from it could exceed 6 meters,” he explained.
However, mowing the grass means that the potential flame length is also significantly reduced. According to Whitman, less than two feet instead of 20 feet – generates a lot less heat.
The clearing of the land also creates firebreaks and escape routes for residents if the roads become impassable. In addition, the embers may not be able to be carried that far because oxygen cannot swirl as freely through the cut grass.
“When the fire is on this hill, the embers must fly overhead and then threaten the structures,” he said while standing in a clearing at the entrance to Malibu Creek State Park. “When the Woolsey fire came through here, these houses survived and it had a lot to do with this reduced fire intensity that is a product of these fuel treatments.”
Much of what Whitman knows about reaction to fire comes from personal experience.
Upon graduating from high school, he met a recruiter who was looking for people to fight forest fires. Whitman started training right away and spent 15 years as a hotshot. He flew with teams of helicopters to fight forest fires along the coast.
“It seemed like a lot of fun and it really was,” he recalls.
When he became a father, however, he decided to swap his helicopter for a tractor and a job where he could apply what he had learned on site.
“You know, in all the fire experience, you have seen what influenced the fire behavior and the fire results,” he explained. “Often it was changes in the fuels.”
Part of its program is focused on 250 acres in five strategic treatment areas, including the Reagan Ranch.
The crews also manage 85 acres of defensible space in more than a dozen locations across the Santa Monica National Recreation Area.
It has the highest priority locally and is also receiving more attention and funding nationally.
The Biden government has proposed a budget for 2022 that calls for an additional $ 84 million for fuel management.
When he retires from his career – or changes channels, as he puts it – Whitman is still worried.
The next generation inherits increased frequencies of fire, but they also inherit his plan.
“Charlie is great,” Hallman said, a weed whipper sitting casually on her shoulder. “He’s making so many maps, so many diagrams of where to treat and how much and what kind of fuel there is, so he’s all set up and ready to move on.”
“The future is these people,” said Whitman of the trail crew, before hugging them all goodbye.
He hopes that they will continue to apply what he has taught them, work proactively and adapt to changing conditions.
“I think the time has come to leave it to another generation and make their own assumptions about what is appropriate,” he said.
The resignation is full of emotions, but Whitman is confident that he has achieved his long career goal: to keep life, land and property safe from forest fires.
“Over time, one realizes the value of the work you are doing and your ability to improve protection,” he said, “that was something I am currently aware of.”
It is a satisfying feeling to soak him up while he rides off into the sunset.