With a major wildfire already burning and another one just breaking out, Santa Barbara County emergency personnel didn’t need any additional challenges last week.
But that’s exactly what they got, in the form of an emergency-radio failure and mechanical problems with a water-dropping helicopter.
Firefighters already had their hands full with the White Fire, which eventually charred nearly 2,000 acres in the upper Santa Ynez River area, when another vegetation blaze broke out in Santa Ynez on Tuesday afternoon.
Complicating the response for emergency personnel was the fact that much of their radio communication system was down for almost an hour that day — from 2:40 to 3:30 p.m.
The Santa Ynez fire, which ultimately blackened 170 acres of grassland, was reported at 3:19 p.m., leaving at least an 11-minute period during which dispatchers could not communicate with any emergency responders via the radio.
Sources familiar with the radio system confirmed to Noozhawk that the county’s radio-repeater system, which serves to connect dispatch to fire, law enforcement and ambulances, had been malfunctioning seriously for about a week, and also had experienced intermittent problems for about a year.
“The problem had little to no impact on response time to the fire from all agencies involved because dispatch was able to make direct, quick contact with everyone on their landlines or cellphones,” said Kelly Hoover, a Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman.
The exact cause of the problem hasn’t been determined, but was most likely due to a power surge or outage, she said.
Santa Barbara County Fire Capt. David Sadecki said a contingency radio plan was in place prior to the start of the Santa Ynez fire, and “the plan was activated with no delay to responding resources.”
In addition to the communication snafu, a bucket cable belonging to the county’s Copter 3 snapped as the aircraft was preparing to drop water on the Santa Ynez fire.
It was clear from emergency radio traffic that not having Copter 3 hampered the aerial attack on the Santa Ynez blaze, especially since requests for additional aircraft took a while to be fulfilled.
The broken bucket cable was repaired fairly quickly, Sadecki said, while acknowledging that the equipment failure was “a setback.”
Sadecki noted that firefighters don’t base strategy and tactics solely on air resources, which are intermittent and not continuous because the aircraft have to reload with water or retardant.