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Smoke in San Luis Obispo was from a prescribed burn

In this image distorted by heat and smoke, firefighter Nolan Barickman sets fire to grass east of Islay Hill during a prescribed burn Friday.
In this image distorted by heat and smoke, firefighter Nolan Barickman sets fire to grass east of Islay Hill during a prescribed burn Friday. jmellom@thetribunenews.com

Firefighters successfully burned 75 acres of grassland east of Islay Hill near San Luis Obispo on Friday in an effort to eradicate a weed that is invading that area.

The burn began at 10 a.m., lasted two hours and produced a column of smoke that was visible throughout the area. Smoke drifted into parts of southern San Luis Obispo.

The purpose of the burn was to test the effectiveness of using prescribed fire to eliminate medusahead grass. Although not common in San Luis Obispo, the weed has established itself in several hotspots and can be difficult to eliminate, said Marc Lea with the county Agricultural Commissioner’s office.

The weed causes numerous problems for farmers, said Alan Peters, the Cal Fire forester who planned the burn. It crowds out native grasses, forms dense layers of thatch on the ground that increases fire danger and is unpalatable to cattle.

“It’s like (Osama) bin Laden,” said landowner Ernie Righetti, 94. “You’ve got to kill it to get rid of it.”

Like all prescribed burns, Friday’s event required close collaboration among many agencies, including the county Air Pollution Control District. Mark Elliott from that office was on hand to give final approval for the burn to start.

A firefighter wielding a drip torch lit a test burn to verify the direction of the wind. It was gently pushing the smoke east, away from San Luis Obispo, the sign that the burn could begin in earnest.

By noon, all 75 acres had been blackened. Firefighters monitored the burn site for the rest of the day to snuff out any flare-ups and will check up on it daily for a week, Peters said.

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