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Santa Barbara County’s Fire Season Threat Only Escalates as Summer Draws to Close

With ongoing drought, vegetation blazes are likely to be bigger and hotter; residents urged to be prepared

As summer draws to a close, California’s ongoing drought has created the conditions for a horrific fall fire season, with the potential to put Santa Barbara County residents — and firefighters — into more danger than ever before.

Experts acknowledge that the fire season will be longer, with disastrous wildfires able to ignite even in the dead of winter.

In addition, fires may be bigger and the flames higher and hotter — and homeowners may feel more abandoned when catastrophe comes.

Firefighters still intend to save every life and structure they can. However, perhaps more than in prior years, they are emphasizing every individual’s responsibility to prevent fires and every property owner’s duty to create “defensible space” before a fire starts.

That’s because professional firefighting has its limitations.

Drought creates “a different kind of fire season ... with fast, flashy fuels,” said Jim Bryden, operations division chief with the Santa Barbara Fire Department. “It’s going to burn differently, probably more aggressively.”

Fire crews are trained to keep track of their best “escape routes and safety zones” while fighting flames, Bryden said, but with extra-dry fuels poised to create higher, hotter flames, “what worked five years ago is now too small.”

For example, a long driveway that was a safe place for firefighters in the past might not work this year, he said.

Bryden noted that preparing for fire season during an extended drought doesn’t change training methods as much as it changes awareness.

“It creates a higher sense of safety for the public and ourselves,” he said.

Preparation Is Key

Even as they make new plans, update their training processes, hire a few more firefighters, buy different equipment, and coordinate more with other agencies, fire officials continue spreading the message of individual preparation and prevention in innovative ways, ranging from uniformed volunteers on hiking trails to public service announcements at area movie theaters, and even a children’s program at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

Flames burn the hillside behind a Lompoc home during the Miguelito Fire in May. Fire officials have been urging residents to create ‘defensible space’ around their houses to reduce fire danger. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department file photo)

“I think what’s most important is to have a realistic understanding and expectation of what’s going to happen” when a fire breaks out, said Geri Ventura, public information officer for the Montecito Fire Protection District.

“People are used to calling 9-1-1 and getting a response in minutes, which is a reasonable expectation” when a single house catches fire, she said. “But in a large, catastrophic wildfire, you can have a thousand people calling.”

For the combined fire agencies throughout Santa Barbara County’s South Coast, from Carpinteria to Gaviota, normal staffing includes 22 engines, Ventura said. And even when sending mutual aid for a catastrophic blaze, she said, districts need to hold back some of that equipment to protect their own residents.

“To expect an engine at your house ... even in your neighborhood, in the first half-hour to an hour is unrealistic ...,” she said. “You’re not going to get that engine right away, like you would in a normal day.”

That means individuals need to prepare, just as fire agencies do.

“You need to do everything you can to make your home as defensible as possible” well before a wildfire begins, she said. 

“When people provide defensible space, it allows us to do our job safely,” said Capt. David Sadecki of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

Homeowners may be more motivated to fortify their houses and landscapes against fire if they realize that, in a crisis, firefighters sometimes have to choose which houses to save — essentially, deciding to help those who have helped themselves.

“You’re going to choose the house on the block that’s the most save-able,” Bryden acknowledged. “We’re going to ‘pick winners,’ is the way we see it.”

[Click here for advice on creating “defensible space.”]

In high-hazard zones, Santa Barbara requires the creation of defensible space around structures. Click here for more information.

What’s the Forecast?

The local fire season typically runs from mid-May to mid-November, but drought makes it a year-round concern.

“We didn’t really end our fire season last year,” said Eric Boldt, a warning-coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

A small storm in February raised the moisture level in wildfire fuels temporarily, but that had already “dropped off” by late June, he added.

Phrasing it another way, Sadecki said in early July that “the mountains think it’s September.”

He based that description on the twice-monthly gathering of wildland fuel samples that are measured for moisture levels. At the beginning of July, those levels averaged 78 percent. The critical fuel moisture level for ignition of large wildfires is 60 percent.

“We’re definitely getting ready for major fires,” Boldt added. “It’s just a matter of how much wind and how hot it gets.”

No Place for Complacency

Fire officials are hard-pressed to identify any parts of the county that are of special concern this year because, they say, the drought puts every area at high risk.

“The Santa Barbara front-country is always susceptible because of the dynamics that are there ... (especially) sundowner winds,” Sadecki said. “That’s always a concern because of the microclimates we have. It can be very windy in Montecito and dead calm in Santa Barbara,” for example.

“Our main concern is the wildland-urban interface, and that’s all over the county,” he added.

And even places that have suffered major fires recently are matchboxes ready to ignite.

[Click here for a map showing Santa Barbara County’s major wildfires]

“I would like to say that the Tea Fire (which burned 1,940 acres and destroyed 210 homes in Montecito in November 2008) couldn’t happen again, but it’s been five years, and there’s been a lot of regrowth,” Ventura said. “People need to be extremely aware of their surroundings and what they’re doing outside.”

“These areas regenerate,” added Andrew Madsen, a spokesman in the Goleta office of the U.S. Forest Service. “It (vegetation) doesn’t need to be all that thick for the fire to run through it and get into these areas that haven’t burned.”

“The Jesusita Fire area, that’s all come back,” he said, in the five years since flames destroyed 80 homes, 79 outbuildings and a commercial property as it raced across a sprawling 8,733 acres in the foothills above Santa Barbara in May 2009.

On the Ground

In the face of such a looming threat, what’s being done to gear up?

The county Fire Department has not added any major equipment this year, but has restored a hand crew, a 14-member team that can work in rugged areas that ground equipment can’t reach.

Since completing their training in July, the crew members have been stationed at Lake Cachuma.

“We had to lay them off two years ago due to budget constraints,” Sadecki said.

The county coordinates with CalFire and the Forest Service, which employ similar teams, so that one crew is always on duty during fire season.

A 14-member hand crew with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department helps cut containment lines during an August fire near Lompoc. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department file photo)

“They’re (also) able to help with mop-up, and it allows us to get our engines back into the station quicker,” Sadecki said.

The county agency has also added an assistant’s position for bulldozer operations, responsible for helping to move the machinery; ferrying fuel, food and other supplies to dozer operators; and helping to guide them as they clear fire lines.

This year the Montecito and Santa Barbara fire departments have each added a brush truck, which is a smaller “Type 3” fire engine that carries its own water supply and can maneuver in rural areas better than large urban “Type 1” engines can. Each agency now has two brush trucks.

Montecito was also expecting delivery this summer of a “Type 6” engine, which is closer to the size of a pickup truck, but also able to carry and pump water onto a fire. Santa Barbara is trying to find the funding to buy a “Type 6” engine as well.

The smaller trucks play a key role because access is one of a fire department’s biggest concerns, Ventura said.

“Montecito is known for its narrow, winding roads, which is one of the reasons people like to live here,” she said. “It’s got a semi-rural feel but they have an urban expectation of response.”

“For structure protection, we need the large equipment” because the larger homes in Montecito “can be more like a commercial building,” she added.

The department’s front-line “Type 1” engines need to carry all the equipment necessary to fight urban fires, so they have to be large.

In the Air

The Forest Service has added three modern BAe-146 firefighting aircraft to its national fleet this year, making a total of seven. That gives the agency 15 large air tankers under exclusive lease across the country, including DC-10s, P2Vs and the BAe-146s.

Other aircraft can be requested when needed.

The wide-body McDonnell Douglas DC-10 is by far the biggest firefighting tanker in the fleet, capable of carrying up to 12,000 gallons of fire retardant that it can drop in a line 300 feet wide and a mile long.

A DC-10 makes a drop of fire retardant earlier this year on the Miguelito Fire near Lompoc. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department file photo)

Another workhorse of the fleet, the Lockheed P2V, can carry between 2,000 and 3,000 gallons. The BAe-146 (initially manufactured by British Aerospace) is about the same size as the P2V but can carry more than 3,000 gallons of retardant and cruise at 380 mph, compared to the P2V’s 215 mph.

That extra speed allows a BAe-146 to drop its larger load of retardant three times for every two trips by a P-2V.

Dispatched from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, the planes are pre-positioned around the country according to fire predictions and then shifted immediately to areas they are most needed when fires erupt.

Locally, they operate out of the Santa Maria Airport and other California locations.

The Forest Service also owns eight portable units called MAFFS, for Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems, which can slide into a C-130 to convert the large military cargo plane into a firefighting bomber.

In this region, that is coordinated with the 146th Airlift Wing of the California Air National Guard in Port Hueneme. 

According to the Forest Service, a converted C-130 can drop 3,000 gallons of retardant in under five seconds, and once back on the ground a MAFFS can be refilled in less than 12 minutes.

Santa Barbara County operates a fleet of helicopters that are used for firefighting, search and rescue and law enforcement.

In addition, the Angeles National Forest now has a night-flying helicopter that “would be available on the southern end of the Los Padres (National Forest) if we had something and we thought we could make some progress overnight,” Madsen said.

CalFire, the state firefighting agency, maintains 13 bases for airplanes and nine for helicopters. Its fleet of emergency-response aircraft includes 23 Grumman S-2T air tankers (carrying 1,200 gallons of retardant), 11 UH-1H “Super Huey” helicopters that can carry retardant or firefighters, and 14 smaller “air tactical” planes that help direct the pilots of other firefighting aircraft.

Santa Barbara County’s Copter 308 drops water on the 2012 Lookout Fire near Painted Cave. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk file photo)

“We depend heavily on mutual aid in this area,” said Bryden, who explained that in the current conditions during the initial response to a fire call, he may ask for more air support rather than more ground equipment.

[Click here for a guide to firefighting aircraft]

New Ways to Fight

The four largest wildfires in California’s recorded history have all ignited since 2003.

The Zaca Fire burned 240,000 acres in Santa Barbara County, mostly in Los Padres National Forest, in the summer of 2007. It stands in fourth place behind San Diego’s Cedar Fire (273,000 acres) in October 2003, Lassen County’s Rush Fire (272,000 acres) in August 2012, and Tuolumne County’s Rim Fire (257,000 acres) in August 2013.

Knowing the potential for catastrophe this year, local firefighters would prefer to win the war before it begins, and they are leaning heavily on some new tactics.

The Montecito Fire Department is enlisting volunteers to expand a “trail activation” program that it launched last year.

Since 1987, the department has relied on the volunteers in the Montecito Emergency Response and Recovery Action Group, or MERRAG (pronounced “Mirage”), who train frequently in emergency response and other skills.

In the new program, during high fire conditions, the volunteers will be stationed at all of Montecito’s hiking trails. Dressed in red uniform shirts, they will talk to hikers and provide them with information about the high fire danger and what they will need to hike safely.

The program has other potential benefits, Ventura noted. In addition to providing a rough count of how many hikers are on the trails if a fire breaks out, the volunteers have the opportunity to “look hikers in the eye” — including potential arsonists, who might be deterred by the knowledge that trained volunteers could identify them.

Actress Betty White, with the title of “honorary forest ranger,” has created a 60-second public service announcement that has been showing during the previews before feature films in area cinemas.

Promoting the Forest Service campaign “One less spark is one less wildfire,” White appears with Smokey Bear to give fire-prevention tips. She notes that preventing wildfires helps keep firefighters safe, “especially the cute, shirtless ones.” Click here to view the video.

Promoting the same campaign, firefighters have visited businesses that sell everything from chainsaws to off-road vehicles and received permission to post brochures about fire prevention.

At the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, the Forest Service added a fire-prevention message on July 26 to a continuing exhibit called “Smokey Bear & Woodsy Owl: Home Sweet Home.”

The interactive nationally touring exhibit, developed in cooperation with the Forest Service, delivers an environmental-awareness message in English and Spanish, aimed at families with children from 2 to 9 years old.

On July 26, the agency delivered Smokey Bear on a fire engine to add a fire-prevention lesson. (This year marks Smokey Bear’s 70th birthday and the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.)

On a more serious note, the county Fire Department continues to push its “Ready! Set! Go!” campaign to educate people about emergency preparedness and to improve its coordination with other agencies, Sadecki said.

“We’re continuing to meet with operational-area fire chiefs and continuing to maintain those connections,” he said.

Fire Chief Michael Dyer has decided to assign a captain to dispatch, not only to make decisions more quickly in an emergency but also to increase interagency coordination.

The ongoing drought has created extra dry conditions in the wildland vegetation, which translates to fires that burn hotter. (Zack Warburg file photo)

“Each morning at 8:30 a.m. we know exactly who’s on duty (at all fire agencies) in the operational area ... we know exactly what equipment is available,” Sadecki said.

Early each morning, the county fire dispatch captain receives an email from each area department, compiles his report and sends it back out to all departments.

Based on that information, attack strategies can be planned for that day’s responses within the county and even which people and equipment would be sent out of the county if a mutual-aid request was received.

“Some of our most experienced captains are in the dispatch area,” Sadecki said.

In Santa Barbara, the city fire department is continuing an eight-year push to remove brush before it can ignite.

Through its Wildland Fire Suppression Assessment District in the foothills, the city has removed 906 tons of combustible plants along 103 miles of roads since 2007-2008, cleared potentially hazardous vegetation from 184 acres, and chipped and mulched 3,150 tons of vegetation.

A grant-funded study of evacuation issues during an emergency response seems to confirm the wisdom of that suppression work, Bryden said.

Weather conditions are inseparable from fire danger, and the National Weather Service is also focused on interagency coordination, Boldt said.

A key player is the Southern California Geographic Area Coordinating Center (GACC) in Riverside, a multiagency focal point for coordinating the mobilization of resources for wildland fire and other incidents.

“We’ve beefed up our coordination in the last year or so,” Boldt said. “Every morning we have a conference call with the GACC ... with the predictive services people in Riverside (and) with all the nearby weather service offices.”

If conditions warrant it, a second conference call is set up with relevant fire agencies to talk about hazardous fire weather on the horizon, including Santa Barbara County’s notorious sundowner winds.

“We’ll focus on the details, where those microclimates are, and more specifically where sundowners might occur,” he said.

“We have really strong relationships with the Santa Barbara County agencies. We’re preparing and making sure everyone is on the same page, including information and how to get it.”

The Human Element

Nearly all wildland fires are human-caused, and officials urge the public to be extra vigilant, reporting possible blazes at the first sign of smoke. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department file photo)

This spring, predications called for El Niño rains to fall on Santa Barbara County around Halloween, although forecasters have begun to back away from those statements. As firefighters wait to see whether that forecast will be a trick or a treat, the fire danger remains high.

While the severity may vary, the South Coast fire season is inescapable every year, and so is a glaring statistic: About 95 percent of wildfires are caused by people.

“If we could eliminate that, if people are diligent when they’re out in the wildland area, and smart, that will eliminate that problem,” Sadecki said.

Because no one can prevent all fires, however, the final appeal to citizens is to be responsive in an emergency.

“Don’t assume that somebody has called in that little puff of smoke,” Bryden said. “We don’t begrudge anyone calling. ... We’ll go check it out. The more eyes and awareness, the better. We can upstaff, but what’s that?

“An extra few sets of eyes. It pales in comparison to what the public can do.”

Noozhawk contributing writer Dave Bemis is a longtime local journalist and freelance writer who lives in Santa Ynez.

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