Fire agencies all over Santa Barbara County are preparing for a dry fire season, made more threatening by the ongoing drought conditions.
Agency representatives gathered for a wildland fire season outlook Thursday morning and had breakout sessions after an initial briefing, just like they would during a fire incident.
Studies show that the rest of the western United States may be catching up to California’s level of fire activity because of continuous droughts, said Max Moritz, a faculty member with the UC Berkeley Cooperative Extension in Santa Barbara. He looks at wildfire patterns from an academic perspective and said the low moisture levels in dry grass and the heavier fuels — bushes and trees — give the county a higher fire potential this season.
He said it’s a “fiery mix” of ignitions (caused by people and lightning, mostly), resources to burn and the weather.
Wind is the biggest factor in fire spreading, he added. Santa Barbara is protected from Santa Ana winds (which contribute to Southern California wildfires), but the area does get strong local sundowner winds.
Vegetation moisture was boosted with recent rains but is expected to be critical again by June, said Jay Enns, a battalion chief with the Los Padres National Forest.
He said about half of the heavy fuels have actually died off, which means fires can spread quickly in the front country and backcountry even if moisture levels rise to safer levels.
Fire agency leaders discussed their planning for fires, including logistical issues such as building base camps for the firefighters, coordinating air support, and transportation to get crews and supplies to the front lines.
Logistics head Robert Kovach, a battalion chief with the Carpinteria-Summerland Fire Protection District, talked about getting agreements for food, medical support, supplies, facilities, camp areas and communications systems set up during the off-season.
Once an incident starts, it’s like building a city overnight, he said.
Air support can be a critical piece in protecting homes and stopping a fire’s spread. During the Jesusita Fire, which started May 5, 2009, there were about 20 aircraft working at once, said John Crotty of the Vandenberg Air Force Base Fire Department. He coordinates aircraft resources with the operations division during incidents, which decides where to make retardant and water drops.
He said there is always a fixed-wing aircraft circling above the action to do air traffic control and reconnaissance. Next to the pilot, the point person will be listening to four radios at once to keep in constant contact with everyone else.
The county has different-sized tankers for retardant drops and helicopters to use for water drops, transporting crews, doing medical evacuations and hauling cargo. There are some night-vision resources available, too, which help extend the firefighting day.
Air support is mostly limited by smoke and visibility issues, Crotty said. The future is bright for firefighting aircraft with the potential for using drones for water drops just around the corner, and the increasing use of night missions, he said.
Wildland fires aren’t going away in Santa Barbara County, so people need to learn to coexist with fire, speakers said.
Montecito Fire wildland specialist Jeff Saley had advice for firefighters, property owners and everyone else to stay safe in a fire incident. He said the basics are to remember LCES — lookouts, communication, escape routes and safety zones.
People say it’s not if a wildfire will start but when, according to Lompoc Fire Chief Kurt Latipow.
“This season, it’s not what month it’s going to be, it’s what day it’s going to be,” he said.
The county’s Ready! Set! Go! Program encourages people to prepare for a fire with emergency supplies and important documents, make an action plan and stay aware of fire incidents to evacuate early.
For more information about fire preparedness, visit Santa Barbara County Fire's website by clicking here.