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Wednesday, February 20 , 2019, 2:23 am | Fair 44º


Residents Urged to Get Serious about Wildfire Safety

Santa Barbara County Fire officials use Zaca, Gap and Tea fires to make their points about prevention and preparation.

With three major wildfires in two years still a fresh memory, the Santa Barbara County Fire Department on Monday held the first in a series of town hall meetings designed to inform residents about how they can prevent such fires. In an area perpetually at risk, however, just as much focus was placed on how to deal with them when they ignite and not if.

“This is our wildfire problem and we’ve gotten more of it than we’ve had before,” Capt. Eli Iskow, a department spokesman, said at the gathering at the Goleta Valley Community Center, 5679 Hollister Ave.

The last two years have seen the Zaca Fire rage out of control for two months in 2007, as well as the Gap and Tea fires last year. Together, the blazes burned nearly 252,000 acres, with the Zaca Fire accounting for more than 240,000 acres — making it California’s second largest fire on record. Last November’s Tea Fire destroyed 230 homes in Montecito and Santa Barbara, while the Gap Fire largely denuded the entire mountainside above the Goleta Valley. Miraculously, there were no deaths.

Iskow outlined three things that people should remember about wildfires:

» 90 percent of people die in firestorms because they leave their homes too late.

» Homes burn mainly because of embers.

» Homeowners must prepare, prepare, prepare.

Between dramatic photos of firestorms and video footage taken of the Tea Fire, Iskow explained that while evacuation is the best policy for anyone in the path of a wildfire, not all fires give firefighters a chance to notify residents, like the 1990 Painted Cave Fire.

“That fire came on so fast we had no time to get people out of the way,” he said.

And, as in the case of East Mountain Drive residents like Carla and Lance Hoffman, who were seriously burned in the Tea Fire, the flames often won’t even give people a chance to get away.

“Mainly, the fire’s on you before you’re aware of it,” said Iskow, who later showed a simulation of the 900-foot gauntlet the Hoffmans had to run to get to their car from their house.

To understand how wildfires work and why some homes get burned while others don’t, Iskow urged the audience to think about the embers as opposed to the flames. Carried along by gale-force winds, embers can travel faster and farther than the flames, starting their own fires, which become part of the bigger blaze.

So significant are embers in this situation that Cal-Fire’s new Chapter 7A of its Fire Building Code addresses ember storms in the kinds of building materials appropriate for “wildland-urban interface areas” like the foothills of Santa Barbara and Montecito.

Boxed eaves, fire-resistant vents, flame-proof materials and dual-pane windows are all part of the new rules for building and rebuilding in high fire-risk areas, said Iskow.

“You have to ask the question, ‘Is it Class A?’” he said, referring to the classification Cal-Fire gives approved fire-resistant building material.

Other prevention measures include reducing the buildup of debris on roofs, in gutters, under decks and around homes, and minimizing exposure of flammable parts of a home. Defensible space — 100 feet around for high-risk areas — is also essential, Iskow said.

In the face of unpredictable wildfires, however, sometimes the homeowner has no choice but to stay put.

“We do not support Australia’s Leave Early or Stay and Defend policy at this point in time,” said Iskow, who added that many of the casualties of Australia’s recent firestorms were a result of panic or were residents who were otherwise unable to defend their homes — but also unable to leave.

A homeowner who fails to leave and needs assistance takes resources away from fighting the fire.

“If you need help, you become the priority,” Iskow said.

But should a homeowner decide to stay, there are several things he or she must do to ensure the best chances at a successful defense.

“Are you physically fit enough to fight spot fires for up to 10 hours or more? Do you have the necessary equipment and resources?” Iskow asked.

Above all, for the homeowner who stays to defend, he said, it’s better to be inside than outside.

“However bad it is inside, it’s about five times worse outside,” he said.

The county Fire Department will hold another town hall meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History’s Fleischmann Auditorium, 2559 Puesta del Sol Road.

Click here for more detailed information on how to protect yourself and your property.

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