Volunteer organizations are partnering up to patrol front-country trails above Santa Barbara, and to educate hikers about the dangers of red flag warning days, when weather conditions are hot, dry and have a high risk of fire.
“It’s a new out-of-the-box way to try to educate the community and make hikers aware when there are weather events,” said Geri Ventura of the Montecito Fire Protection District.
Montecito Fire hosted a training for volunteers this week, but would welcome more people.
Fires typically start in the interior of a forest, and Ventura said having people stationed at trailheads and trails themselves will add more eyes on suspicious activity, smoke and getting a head count of hikers at any given time.
The idea is to have volunteers from MERRAG — the Montecito Emergency Response and Recovery Action Group — stay at trailheads and the tops of trails to make sure people carry enough water and ask them to report any smoke or suspicious activity.
The volunteers will also teach hikers how to locate their GPS waypoints on their phones, since the biggest problem with search-and-rescue calls often is locating a person, said Valerie Walston of Santa Barbara County Search & Rescue.
“We tell people to bring water, a phone, food and extra layers,” Walston said. “People can just forget. They think they’re just out on a 30-minute trail run, but that can turn into a three-hour incident if you fall.”
The Montecito Trail Foundation and sheriff’s Search & Rescue volunteers will patrol the trails themselves — there are eight front-country trails, six in Montecito — and look for suspicious activity or medical needs.
SAR personnel are trained EMTs, and will get to know the trail conditions even better with this program, Walston said.
SAR is regularly sent out to these areas to rescue hikers who are suffering from dehydration, heat exhaustion or injuries.
“If fire breaks out, it allows us to first know where people are on the trail, and second, provide any evacuations,” she said.
The idea came about after the Cold Fire, from Montecito Fire Chief Chip Hickman.
That fire burned about three acres in the hills above Montecito last November, and was caused by human activity.
“Had we had this program already in service, we could have prevented that fire from ever happening,” Walston said. “This is a preventive, cautionary measure to prevent that from ever happening again.”
Best of all, it doesn’t cost taxpayers a dime, she noted — every participant is a volunteer.