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‘Staff Ride’ of Santa Barbara Front Country Helps Prepare Local Agencies for Wildfire

Participants stop at a handful of locations along the South Coast, discussing previous blazes and how to react in similar situations

Santa Barbara County Fire Battalion Chief Steve Oak and Montecito Fire Division Chief Kevin Taylor talk about the Painted Cave Fire in 1990 and decisions made during the incident.
Santa Barbara County Fire Battalion Chief Steve Oak and Montecito Fire Division Chief Kevin Taylor talk about the Painted Cave Fire in 1990 and decisions made during the incident. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Standing on a road surrounded by waist-high brittle grass, dozens of emergency personnel from around Santa Barbara County got together to strategize how they'll react in the next wildfire and also to relive and analyze decisions made in past fires.

It was part of a "staff ride" of the Santa Barbara front country, and the event was spearheaded by Los Padres National Forest Division Chief Mark vonTillow.

VonTillow was part of a Los Padres Forest Service contingent that was sent to training at Quantico in 2001, where he witnessed U.S Marines conducting a similar exercise.

"We immediately saw the value," he said, adding that "this has been rolling around in my brain for years," but Thursday was the first time they've been able to do such a large-scale event.

Staffers from the city and county of Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara Police Department, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department, the California Highway Patrol as well multiple fire agencies from the South Coast area were part of the group.

The event created a caravan of about 60 people who stopped at a handful of locations on the South Coast to talk about major fires in the area, and was meant to have attendees ask how they would react to decision making in a similar situation.

"What do you do when you've lost an entire community of 600 homes?" vonTillow asked.

The day began at Fire Station 18 in Gaviota, where the group discussed the Gaviota Fire in 2004, when the decision had to be made to shut down Highway 101.

The next stop was a bridge that crosses Highway 101 near the San Marcos Foothills Preserve, where Los Padres fire officials explained the area had been a hub for the Gap, Painted Cave and Jesusita fires, right at the edge of the urban interface.

fire ride
A map shows the edges of each fire that have raged through the Santa Barbara County front country over the years.

A handful of groups were formed around fire and law enforcement officials, who talked about how decisions were made in several historic front country fires, including the Painted Cave Fire in 1990.

Here, the groups discussed strategic decision making and how evacuations were ordered.

Montecito Fire Division Chief Kevin Taylor held up a map showing where mandatory evacuations were required during the Painted Cave Fire, and a red zone showing those evacuations butted right up the north side of Highway 101.

That fire doubled in size every 10 minutes as it raged down from the Painted Cave area, driven rapidly by sundowner winds that pushed the flames closer to homes and neighborhoods.

"If something is moving that quickly, how does that affect your community?" he asked a group of about 10 people, which included staff from county supervisorial offices, local boards and city staff.

The group talked about issuing a reverse notification call through the 9-1-1 system, and Taylor asked what they would do about residents who didn't want to leave, even in the face of a mandatory evacuation.

"They're on their own," someone replied, and Taylor confirmed that California law says that residents cannot be forced to leave their homes.

Santa Barbara County Fire Battalion Chief Steve Oaks was also in the group, and recalled being there during the fire.

Reverse 9-1-1 had yet to be implemented, so Santa Barbara County sheriff's deputies were driving through the neighborhoods with loudspeakers, warning people to get out.

The fire came so near to the Santa Barbara County Jail that the inmates had to be evacuated, and were led across the highway to San Marcos High School to wait out the danger.

The county's dispatch center was also at the County Jail at that time, and had to be evacuated as well.

"The last thing we heard from them over the radio was, 'Good luck, you're on your own,'" Oaks recalled. "It was very fast moving."

The immediate danger of each fire was discussed, as well as the years, and sometimes decades, of rebuilding that each group was asked to consider.  

After each fire, city and county officials were deluged with new permits to rebuild.

VonTillow said he hopes that after Thursday's event, each agency will be better able to work together in the next fire event.

"It's important that when the next one does happen, we're ready," 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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