Congressman Salud Carbajal headed to the Central Coast on Monday night for a public town hall meeting with Santa Barbara County wildfire and drought mitigation experts.
Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, sat alongside a panel consisting of Tom Fayram, director of Santa Barbara County Flood Control; Eric Peterson, the county fire chief; and Nic Elmquist, a deputy fire management officer with Los Padres National Forest.
During the two-hour discussion and a question-and-answer session with a crowd of more than 120 residents gathered at the county Education Administration Office auditorium, the panelists heard directly from audience members about their concerns, and shared ideas on policy to help keep the community safe and prepared for natural disasters.
Several people spoke of their personal experiences living in California wildfire country, and were looking for answers on everything from assisting elderly residents during emergencies and “holistic” approaches with fire safety management to defensible space measures.
Experts answered those questions, and Carbajal offered some of his plans for bipartisan legislative solutions.
The representative of the 24th Congressional District — which spans nearly 200 miles in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, along with a sliver of northern Ventura County — noted his work in Washington, D.C. and in his district.
Topics ranging from improving prevention and preparation strategies, securing resources for disaster response, as well as drought resilience were discussed.
He said nearly $2.5 billion in funding is secured for the fiscal year 2018 to “fix” what is known as fire borrowing, a practice that currently forces federal agencies to take from fire prevention and mitigation funds to battle fires.
“With this fix, it means wildfires will be treated like any other natural disaster,” Carbajal said. “The U.S. Forest Service was limited in allocating more resources to do fire prevention and mitigation.”
After the 2017 Thomas Fire and this year’s Jan. 9 Montecito debris flows exposed shortcomings in the Wireless Emergency Alert system, Carbajal said, he pressed the Federal Communications Commission to implement improvements to the warning messaging system to help keep residents safe and prepared.
Carbajal discussed increasing fuel-management funding.
He said he offered an amendment that would boost funding for hazardous fuel management activities by an additional $10 million to mitigate the threats of wildfires.
To assist in combating wildfires, the first-term congressman said 20 Blackhawk helicopters were secured in the Making America Secure Appropriations Act.
Carbajal’s efforts in drought mitigation include him introducing the bipartisan legislation Water Infrastructure Resiliency and Sustainability Act, which establishes a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant program for communities working with a local agency to improve resilience and adaptability of their water infrastructure.
He stressed the importance of building resilient infrastructure while grappling with the impacts of an ongoing drought crisis and climate change.
Carbajal also noted the breaks in water mains and pipeline damage when the Montecito area experienced the storm of near record-setting intensity in the early hours of Jan. 9.
“It reminded us how fragile our infrastructure is, and how we should look at ways to continue to make our infrastructure more resilient, ” he said. “There is currently no federal program dedicated to helping communities strengthen the resilience of their water and wastewater infrastructure.”
After opening remarks, panel members briefly spoke about water resources throughout the county, drought conditions and fire-mitigation practices.
“When the rain year ends in August, we will have a record-setting, 7-year drought,” Fayram said. “I hope that…we will remember this extensive drought that we had, and it will help guide us forward as we make our decisions on water supply.”