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Tuesday, February 19 , 2019, 10:12 am | Fair 54º


Santa Barbara County Crews Train for Wildfire Response as High Fire Season Begins

Fire agencies in Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties are staffing more personnel to prepare for the possibility of wildfires

Santa Barbara County Fire Camp One near Lake Cachuma hosted wildfire training Monday as officials declared the start of high fire season.
Santa Barbara County Fire Camp One near Lake Cachuma hosted wildfire training Monday as officials declared the start of high fire season.  (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

The rhythmic motor of a helicopter could be heard in the distance Monday and became increasingly louder just before appearing over the tops of the oak trees that line Santa Barbara County Fire Camp One, a small camp at Lake Cachuma where hand crews are on call 24 hours a day in case of wildfire.

The county’s primary firefighting aircraft, Helicopter 308, whipped up dust from the dry ground before landing, and firefighters moved in with a hose to connect the aircraft with a nearby water source.

Monday was the official start to high fire season in Santa Barbara County, even though drought conditions have made fire season year-round. About 20 county firefighters were at the camp to brush up on their skills so they are ready to respond when a wildfire breaks out.

The helicopter, which can suck up to 200 gallons of water at a time for a water drop, was the centerpiece of a training exercise. Crews were practicing ground fill operations, which would come in handy if a water source is more than a couple of miles away from the fire. 

Santa Barbara County fire crews trained with Helicopter 308 at Camp One near Lake Cachuma on Monday morning. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

If water is any farther than that, it could mean more time in the air, using precious time that is critical when battling a wildfire, according to Matt Farris, crew chief of the county’s air support unit.

A large water tender was on the site, and crews worked to open the truck's spigot to fill up “the pumpkin,” which resembles a large orange inflatable children’s pool and can hold up to 1,500 gallons of water. The water is then released through a set of valves, pumps and hoses and piped to the aircraft, which would proceed with water drops during a fire.   

Because of the drought conditions, all of the water used in Monday exercise was put back into Lake Cachuma.

The county used this technique last during the Rice Fire in Santa Maria, Farris said.

Other fire crews across the camp’s clearing were working on a bulldozer safety session during the training. The bulldozers are used to clear fire lines during wildland firefighting, and are often responsible for taking out trees, branches and large obstacles so that crews can move in to fight the fire on foot.

Crews empty a water tender's load into “the pumpkin,” which can be used to pump water into an aircraft for a wildland fire water drop. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Kyle Hill, a fire equipment operator for the county, recalled using the dozers recently during the Miguelito Fire as well as the Harris Grade Fires.

The dozers are also brought in for floods.

County Fire spokesman Capt. Dave Zaniboni said that wildland firefighting is one of the most dangerous tasks the department does, which makes the required training sessions even more key.

This high fire season’s beginning is the earliest he can remember, he said.

The decision to start the season Monday came not only from Santa Barbara County, but from fire departments in Ventura County, CalFire in San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties, and the Los Padres National Forest.

Each agency is increasing their staffing levels, fire engines, bulldozers, fire crews, helicopters and air tankers to be ready for the possibility of wildfire.

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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