Friday, May 27 , 2016, 7:51 am | Fair 56º

Dry Year Adds Urgency to Wildfire Warnings

Officials say low fuel moisture tied to below-normal rainfall means this could be a challenging fire season in Santa Barbara County

By Tom Bolton, Noozhawk Executive Editor | @tombol |

When it comes to wildland fires, every year is potentially catastrophic in Santa Barbara County, and this year will be no different.

Understanding that reality — and preparing for that possibility — was the overriding message Wednesday as representatives from fire agencies throughout the region gathered to share their outlook for the coming fire season.

The briefing for the news media, public officials and others was held at Manning Park in Montecito.

Rainfall that was considerably less than normal this year means fuel moisture is well below where it typically is this time of year, and that portends potentially more intense fires.

“The recent greening up (due to rains in March and April) is a good thing, but it’s not time to relax,” said Dave Gomberg, fire weather program manager for the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

He noted that sundowner winds, which can contribute to fierce firestorms, are prevalent in May and June, and return again in the fall.

In many areas of the region, fuel moisture levels are around 75 percent, according to Mark vonTillow, battalion chief with the U.S. Forest Service in Los Padres National Forest.

Fuel moisture becomes critical, he said, when levels drop to 60 percent, while normal for this time of year is about 110 percent.

That point was driven home by Division Chief Dan Ardoin with the Vandenberg Air Force Base Fire Department.

“From a fire-behavior point of view, it’s not whether we’re going to have fires, it’s what kind of fires we’re going to have when we do get them,” he said.

Areas of potentially greatest concern include the front side of the Santa Ynez Mountains east of Cold Springs Creek, a region that has not burned since the 1964 Coyote Fire, according to Ardoin. A color-coded map of the area showed a conspicuous lack of any recent burns in that area, which is north and east of the terrain that burned in 2009’s Jesusita Fire.

“The fuels there are heavy and over-mature; the shrubs are more dead than alive, increasing a fire’s intensity,” Ardoin said.

He also noted the Burton Mesa area near Lompoc and Vandenberg, and Tepusquet Canyon east of Santa Maria as areas of concern because of large amounts of thick, dry vegetation. All three areas have many residences interspersed with the vegetation, he said, noting that access and “defensible space” are critical in providing protection during a wildfire.

Click here for information about how to prepare for wildfires.

Chief Andrew DiMizio of the Santa Barbara City Fire Department used the scenario of a fire breaking out at the city’s Parma Park to explain how local agencies use the “mutual aid” system to battle major wildfires.

An initial response to a vegetation fire in the park, located on Stanwood Drive in the foothills above Santa Barbara, would include eight fire engines and 47 firefighters, DiMizio said. In the event such a blaze continued to escalate, resources would be brought in first from the region, then from the state and eventually from throughout the country. DiMizio said this mutual-aid system is critical to quick and effective response to major wildfire.

“There’s nothing magical about this,” he said. “It’s a result from years and years of work, training and cooperation.”

Geri Ventura, who coordinates public education programs for the Montecito Fire Protection District, closed the program by emphasizing that community resources are a critical component of responding to wildfires. She noted that at any given time, there are only 23 fire engines on duty on the South Coast,

“The chance of a fire engine being in front of your house when there’s a wildfire are pretty slim,” she said.

Community resources, including a variety of groups and hundreds of volunteers, can and do make a real difference when major wildfires occur, Ventura said.

She also urged fire agencies not to overlook or dismiss the value of volunteers, especially those who have gone through training to become part of Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT).

“It doesn’t take a ton of money to foster these groups,” Ventura said. “Volunteers are not paid. They work for free and for the betterment of society, not because they’re worthless, but because they’re priceless.

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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