Although the nearby Sedgwick Reserve has recently received notoriety for the waves of ashes it sent toward Santa Barbara and Goleta in late October, it is also known for its slew of research programs and UCSB stewardship. The extensive property near Los Olivos is essential to a variety of ecological and environmental studies for researchers from all over the world and is home to some of the most luscious landscapes in the county.

Sedgwick Reserve Scoop

The 5, 896 acres of Sedgwick Reserve is owned by the Regents of the University of California and is managed by UCSB. The reserve is one of the largest sites of the UC Natural Reserve System. The NRS has established 130,000 acres of protected land and made it available for the study of natural land ecosystems. The Reserve hosts a panorama of rolling hillsides reaching heights of 2,600 feet and the Figueroa Creek – home to several native Santa Barbara plant species. The reserve, located in the Santa Ynez Valley, was once home to some of California’s largest Chumash villages for several hundred years. After the Chumash were removed from their land and baptized into missions, the land went through many owners until Francis “Duke” Sedgwick and his wife bought it in 1952. The couple is better known for their daughter, Edie Sedgwick, who was an actress and model that starred in many Andy Warhol films.

Rick Skillin, the reserve steward who maintains the property, said Duke Sedgwick willed the property to the university and the land has served as a reserve for the last 10 years.

“We get researchers from all over the world coming out here to do projects,” Skillin said.

Today, over 40 research projects are actively conducted on the reserve by faculty, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. The land is also available for activities such as K-12 school trips and public hiking.

Reserve Director Kate McCurdy said 328 UCSB undergraduates visited the reserve last year for various research projects.

Burning Ring of Fire

“I smelled smoke at five in the morning and I looked out the window and saw an orange glow,” Skillin said. “It looked like a thunderhead of smoke and when I got to Anderson Overlook, I could see a ring of fire.”

Santa Barbara County Fire Dept. spokesman Eli Iskow said that on Oct. 20 a forceful storm blew a large branch off of a tree, breaking some nearby power lines on a neighboring ranch. A live wire fell to the ground and sparked a fire.

The blaze was reported by forest service officials at 5:30 a.m. and was put out about 48 hours later on Oct. 22.

Iskow said the fire was well established by the time firefighters arrived.

“They were in the middle of a giant ash cloud so it might have been burning a little while before anyone saw it,” Iskow said.

McCurdy said the fire line got within a mile and a half of the reserve office before it was contained.

“I got a call in the pre-dawn hours and while I was searching for my cell phone I looked out the window and said, ‘Oh, that’s why my phone’s ringing,'” McCurdy said. “I could see flames from my bedroom window.”

McCurdy said she started to hyperventilate because she could not tell how far away the fire was from her home.

McCurdy said she instantly started calling some people who had helped at the reserve during the Zaca Fire over the summer. Friends came to the ranch and started moving computers and artwork from the reserve office as well as from a few private homes to vehicles in case they needed to evacuate.

“I called the neighbors, moved all the equipment into an evacuation field because at that point the firefighters showed up and then I showed the firefighters where the hydrant was and also where the propane tanks were,” Skillin said.

Skillin said he and McCurdy are the only two people living in private homes on the Sedgwick Reserve full time and that the rest of the reserve is a ranch facility with barns and sheds. He said the firefighters were able to control the Sedgwick Fire rather quickly due to their vast experience with the previous Zaca fire, despite the fact that the Sedgwick Fire had come much closer to buildings.

Iskow said that firefighters were initially dispatched solely from Santa Barbara until the blaze grew too large. At this point, reinforcements were sent from neighboring counties. He said at the height of the blaze, six helicopters were sent to dump water on the fire and five air tankers dropped fire retardant.

“That was the day [the other California fires] started,” Iskow said. “We actually lost two of our air tankers to be directed to fires in the south.”

Skillin said he watched the helicopters fill up with water from the reserve pond, dump it on the flames and return within two minutes. He said the helicopter pilots already knew the terrain from fighting the Zaca Fire and that saved a lot of time.

Iskow said none of the 500 firefighters were hurt during the fire, which consumed 710 acres.

“We really did have it knocked down that first day,” Iskow said. “By nighttime we had it 50 percent contained.”

Skillin said some firefighters remained on the reserve for a week after the fire was extinguished to make sure it did not flare up again. He said fire crews sometimes practice at the reserve.

“I’ve received fire training with the fire crew,” Skillin said. “They train out here sometimes so I have a bit of the knowledge about defensive space and how they fight.”

Iskow said the Sedgwick Fire was not a tremendous threat because the area had many resources the firefighters could use. He said the area also had defensible space such as buildings that use inflammable materials like stucco or aluminum. Iskow said the fire department will intensely publicize safe spaces in the year to come.

“We’ll really be promoting the defensible space message,” Iskow said.

Skillin said the firefighters were impressed with Sedgwick’s use of defensive space because it protects the reserve’s resources and is safer for firefighters.

“We have implemented defensive space,” Skillin said. “We cut back any weeds on the road and put 100 foot buffers around the houses so if a fire did come, the firefighters would have a safe space to work.”

Iskow said promoting defensible space is crucial because dry vegetation and rising populations increase the potential for fire disasters.

“We are in period of increasing fire threats, we’re having warmer, dryer years,” Iskow said.

Bad News Bulldozers

Skillin said the Sedgwick Fire was quick burning and mostly destroyed grass and sage. He said firefighters used bulldozers to scrape the ground surface to clear the brush and expose the dirt in lines about two to four bulldozers wide to stop the spreading flames.

McCurdy said the native reserve plants grow their roots deep into the ground so that if they are burned, they can grow back. However, she said, the bulldozer lines scrape away the topsoil and roots and make scars that will deter plant growth.

“The bulldozer lines probably caused far more damage than the fire,” McCurdy said. “It will take years to try and get the native plants to grow back. Next spring you won’t even be able to notice where a fire was, but you will notice the bulldozer lines.”

McCurdy said the bulldozer lines could also cause mudslides during the wet season because the plants scraped away would have helped hold soil and absorb water. Besides the bulldozer lines, though, the reserve did not suffer significant damage, McCurdy said.

“The firefighters had to cut some fences and ran over a water line which made a water hole the animals have been drinking from.”

Silver Lining Around the Smoke

Skillin said several research projects are conducted at the reserve including soil studies, oak regeneration studies and sustainable agriculture studies. Luckily, he said, the fire did not destroy or damage any of the land or projects, though a mammal studies project may suffer because ground animals scattered during the blaze.

In fact, Skillin said, many researchers are now thinking of doing some projects about the change in plants from fire because “in California, fire is a part of the environment.” He also said he is already planning to take pictures of the burnt landscape and monitor the changes.

“It’s called fire ecology,” Skillin said. “There could be fire poppies coming up. Some plants need fire to repopulate.”

McCurdy said she set up a camera by the new water hole created by the firefighters when they ran over a water line. She said she has observed a menagerie of creatures caught on camera drinking from the fresh flow, including a Black Bear. She said she wants to maintain the waterhole for further research.