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Monday, January 21 , 2019, 8:17 am | Fair 52º


Commentary: ‘Let It Burn’ Policy a Disaster Waiting to Happen

It's time we resolved to fix the fundamental failures of our firefighting strategy

Many residents noticed on the afternoon and evening of May 5 that perhaps only four fixed-wing fire suppression drops occurred over the Jesusita Fire, which ignited just before 2 p.m. that day. The response by firefighting officialdom seemed extremely weak. Let me say that I applaud the tireless and courageous efforts of the firefighters, but I believe there is a fundamental failure in the “official” firefighting philosophy employed in Santa Barbara. They did not seek to extinguish the fire!

Here’s what I think they are doing wrong and why I think we must remedy not just the increasing length of the fire season.

Background: The terrain of Santa Barbara along with the typical weather/wind patterns on the South Coast, plus the extremely combustible nature of our local vegetation, create an explosive and deadly wildfire environment. The exceptionally high cost of real estate here certainly blunts claims that extinguishing fires is not “cost-effective.”

I believe that firefighting authorities have an incorrect conceptualization of the way to fight fires here. They seem to take a “let it burn” attitude except as it directly or immediately threatens structures. They, of course, place highest priority on vigorous direct action when lives are threatened.

The problem with this “let it burn itself out” attitude is that any wildfires in our South Coast hillside terrain have explosive potential to grow very rapidly. Because of the potential for hot-burning wildfires to create their own wind and weather conditions, the degree of threat should be changed from hazardous to extremely dangerous and potentially deadly.

The much higher cost of real estate here turns a personal tragedy into a major insurance loss and, as we saw last week, a major economic disruption, too.

Resolution: For the above reasons, the official approach to fighting wildfires should be changed as follows:

» No fire on the south slopes of the Santa Ynez Mountains or anywhere within the greater Goleta, Santa Barbara, Montecito or Carpinteria areas should be allowed to burn.

» Any burning fire should be extinguished, completely.

» Firefighting aircraft should be stationed year round at the Santa Barbara Airport, along with an eight-hour supply of dousing materials with ongoing quick resupply (two hours by truck) backup materials available. This means at least two fixed-wing and several (four-plus) helicopters.

» Firefighting aircraft should be local government-controlled, even if owned and operated by the federal government.

» The equipment based here should be part of a year-round training center for National Guard, state and local aerial firefighting missions.

» Santa Barbara should be considered a worst-case target area for firefighting training and technology so that it becomes a permanent funding priority for federal, state and local governments.

In the urban-suburban high-density population area that is Santa Barbara, Goleta and Carpinteria, we cannot allow the existing limited action, “let it burn itself out” philosophy to continue threatening our community.

While waiting for a fire to burn itself out in an isolated forest may be an acceptable forest “resource management” tool. It is not appropriate for our Santa Barbara locale.

Let’s resolve to fix this problem now!

— Mikell Becker is a longtime Santa Barbara resident.

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