Local fire agencies aren’t worried about low water supplies for firefighting during the drought, but Santa Barbara County’s extremely dry vegetation could lead to a significant and prolonged fire season.
“We’re in Santa Barbara so historically we never fall out of fire season,” Santa Barbara Fire Chief Pat McElroy told Noozhawk. “But this year we’re acutely aware that we’re in a drought cycle and so the fuels we have to deal with, the moisture levels are extremely low.”
Vegetation is more susceptible to ignition because it’s so dry, so SBFD has a “pessimistic outlook” toward the coming fire season, he said.
Santa Barbara County Fire Department officials think the fire season will start in May, earlier than usual.
“What sticks out in my mind is that in the month of March, in my almost 37 years here, we never had a red-flag warning get called in March,” county Fire Chief Mike Dyer said of the National Weather Service warning that conditions are ideal for awildland fire to ignite and escalate.
“That’s significant because you usually can’t have red-flag warnings because everything is dry, humidity is not that low and it’s just not these types of weather patterns.”
Recent rainstorms have “taken the edge off” for the current threat, but without significant rainfall, Dyer thinks the fire season could last all year.
Fire agencies want to remind everyone that a few inches of rain don’t cure the drought problem. Most areas in Santa Barbara County have recorded less than half the normal rainfall for this time of year and reservoirs have low water levels.
“We were getting wildland fire starts every other day until we got these spritzes,” Dyer said of the recent rains.
California has had five times the amount of working fires this time of year than it did last year, and the spike proves there is a higher threat this year, Dyer said.
“We’ve had three years of light fire activity in this county and I hope it hasn’t given everybody a false sense of security,” he said.
Fire agencies are doing command training and wildland strike team training soon, Dyer and McElroy said.
For firefighting preparations, agencies aren’t worried about low water storage levels.
For day-to-day operations, Santa Barbara’s Fire Department uses city hydrants, which use the same water supplies as everything else. There aren’t any supplies set aside for firefighting, even in times of drought, fire Capt. Gary Pitney said.
There’s no concern about having enough water for firefighting.
“With wildfire, water is just one of the tools we use,” McElroy said.
Aircraft drop retardant, crews cut lines and try to drive fires toward natural barriers like roads, bodies of water or rock outcroppings.
“If you look at the Tea and Jesusita fires, there isn’t enough water to use just water to put that thing out,” McElroy said. “You have to use all kinds of different techniques.”
Aircraft will fuel with retardant at the Santa Maria Airport or fill up with water by dipping into the Gibraltar Reservoir and Cater Water Treatment Plant for front-country fires, Pitney said. The low levels at Gibraltar will probably make it unusable, but seawater can be used in some incidents, McElroy noted.
Los Padres National Forest gets its water from wells and tanks at its fire stations, public affairs officer Andrew Madsen said.
The tanks are fully stocked at 60,000 gallons in spring and the U.S. Forest Service also has agreements with private landowners to take water from their property if needed.
“In my discussions with (Montecito Water District director) Tom Mosby, he assures me there will always be water in the system for essential services and emergency services,” Hickman said.
Water use does spike during wildland fires, but it’s not a significant amount in the big picture, he said.
Losing pressure has been a bigger problem in the past, since many residents turn on sprinklers and hoses and any burned structures have pipes break and start spraying.
To deal with that, the Montecito Water District has added pump stations.
“We have a fire and water representative manage those incidents and make sure that water is focused in the right places so they open valves, close valves and make sure pump stations are working so the pressure stays up in the system,” Hickman said.
Most local wildfires are fast-moving but only last a few days, so a lot of destruction is done in a short period of time, he said.
“They’re pushed by wind and once they’re not, they run uphill and we get a hold of it,” he said.
With the drought, it’s imperative that people keep their homes and gutters clear of dry or dead leaves, Hickman added.
Local volunteers will keep patrolling front-country trails and trailheads this year. Montecito Emergency Response and Recovery Action Group volunteers stay at trailheads on red flag warning days — with hot, dry, windy weather making a high fire risk — to educate people and deter them from engaging in any intentionally or accidentally dangerous behavior. Other volunteer groups patrol the trails and look for suspicious activity or medical needs.
“It’s kind of like watching the door,” Hickman said.