Sunday, October 21 , 2018, 6:52 am | Fair 58º


Mishap Sparked By Permitted Burn Leads County Fire to Change Procedures

After a small blaze in the Goleta foothills is blamed on a communication breakdown, officials vow 'it won't happen again'

A firefighter hoses down flames from a permitted burn that jumped containment lines last week in the Goleta foothills. Santa Barbara County fire officials said a “communication breakdown” prevented the department from canceling the burn despite windy conditions, and have promised to tighten procedures.
A firefighter hoses down flames from a permitted burn that jumped containment lines last week in the Goleta foothills. Santa Barbara County fire officials said a “communication breakdown” prevented the department from canceling the burn despite windy conditions, and have promised to tighten procedures. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

A "communication breakdown" prevented fire officials from canceling a permitted burn in the Goleta foothills last week that jumped its containment lines, sparking a small vegetation fire and stoking concerns from area residents.

That was the assessment Monday from Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Eric Peterson, who told Noozhawk that the decision to allow the burn to take place last Tuesday despite blustery conditions was a mistake, and that the department is taking steps to make sure it doesn't happen again.

"We get it, and we took action, and it won't happen again," Peterson said.

Crews were called out at about 5:50 p.m. to the 1500 block of Camino Rio Verde, in the North Patterson area, and found flames being whipped by gusty conditions. The blaze charred more than an acre before being contained by firefighters.

Although no evacuations were required or structures threatened, the incident caused some residents to wonder how the department could have allowed a permitted burn to take place on a day when the winds reached such high speeds.

The department issues three kinds of permits, including one for hazard reduction, which aims to reduce the volume of fuel around structures and allows cut brush from around structures to be burned under "optimal conditions."

"That way if a fire does roll through, it has a less of an impact," Peterson said.

In the Santa Ynez Valley, certain areas are allowed to burn brush if its more than the typical green bin can handle.

The permit used in last Tuesday's incident was for an agricultural burn, which occurs when the owner of a vineyard, avocado orchard or other agricultural property has cut vegetation to dispose of, and the volume is too large to economically have it chipped and hauled away.

A Fire Department duty officer typically decides the night before whether people with permits can proceed with their burns.

Santa Barbara County's Air Pollution Control District issues a recommendation on whether to permit burns, based on health factors such as whether there will be a high amount of particulates in the air the next day, Peterson said.

Then, the Fire Department makes its own judgment call, taking the ACPD recommendation into consideration, as well as factors such as wind speed, humidity, fuel moisture and the like, Peterson said.

"We look at projected weather patterns based on what is predicted for next day … and should tomorrow be a burn day or not," he said, adding that the information is posted on a hot line — 805.686.8177 — that people call to see whether they can proceed with their burns.

(A recorded message on that line Monday night stated that "there will be no permitted burning in Santa Barbara County until further notice.")

A burn permit must be obtained in advance, and an inspection takes place in order to grant the permit. The department issues "well over 100 burn permits" each year, Peterson said.

Last week before the fire broke out, a duty officer working in dispatch the day before had the "wrong information," Peterson said, adding that there "was a complete communication breakdown."

The morning after the fire, Fire Department staff met to come up with some checks and balances that would be put in place in the future.

Peterson said he understands that people are concerned, but stressed that the fire was an isolated incident.

Going forward, the department will have three senior chief officers making the decision about whether to allow burns to take place, he said.

Peterson encouraged people to continue calling 9-1-1 if there's a fire emergency taking place.

He also noted that anyone who is conducting a permit burn must have the appropriate water supply and take other precautions.

"It's very explicit on the back of each permit," he said.

Some other jurisdictions have issued burn restrictions since last week's fire.

"We all talk to each other," Peterson said of the county and smaller fire departments.  "We have a larger area, of course, and we may very well not have any burn days based on what the weather does."

Fire season used to be fairly defined, but since the drought has become more extreme, "it's become more blurry," he said.

The Santa Barbara City Fire Department announced last week that it would be canceling all burn permits until further notice.

"Due to little rain fall, diminishing moisture levels in vegetation, and unseasonably warm weather, the Santa Barbara City Fire Department has canceled any and all burn permits that have been issued," the statement said. "This fire restriction is to ensure the safety of our foothill areas and to minimize the potential risk of a wildland fire within the city limits."

Andrew Madsen, spokesman for the Los Padres National Forest, said that while the county issues the majority of the burn permits in the forest, occasionally Los Padres fire crews will step in and issue permits themselves.

Madsen said the U.S. Forest Service is closely monitoring live fuel moisture levels, which will determine whether burn permits are issued and whether fires are allowed only in designated campgrounds.

The Forest Service has not determined a specific date when those restrictions will go into place, "but if the current weather patterns persist, it will occur sooner rather than later," he said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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