As warmer weather and the summer season approaches, 150 firefighters from multiple Central Coast agencies came together near Santa Barbara Wednesday to hone the skills they need to battle wild-land fires.
Crews from Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties practiced utilizing equipment and resources used to respond to wildfires.
The large-scale wildland-urban interface firefighting training exercise aimed to prepare crews for the looming fire season.
The vegetation had endured severe conditions thanks to California's five-year drought.
The probability of wildfire activity remains despite the record-breaking rainy weather sprouting green grass and blooming flowers, according to City of Santa Barbara Fire Department spokeswoman Amber Anderson.
A formal fire season forecast hasn’t been released, Anderson said, but fire officials are anticipating the wild-land fire potential to be fast-moving from the new grass.
“Grass fires are pretty easy to put out but move very quickly,” Anderson said. “Because it is fast-moving, the fire can get into areas that have dense brush and chaparral that has a lot dead in the undergrowth.”
Anderson said it’s always important to prepare crews.
“Either we are in a drought, and everything is dead, or we had a lot of moisture, and it’s going to dry out,” she said. “There’s always something.”
When speaking to homeowners in preparation for the drill, a handful felt “comfortable” because of the significant rainfall, Anderson said.
“Their mind is at ease,” she said.
There’s no exact declaration of a fire season, but the heightened local wildfire break out is typically in May or June, Anderson said.
The agencies tend to increase their staffing during those months.
Wild-land fire potential is year-round in Santa Barbara County, Anderson said.
She noted that the 2008 Tea Fire burned in November and the Gibraltar Fire in 2015 swept across the foothills above Santa Barbara in October.
“There’s no specific time frame or date,” Anderson said. “It depends on the conditions of the fuel and weather.”
Last year, crews tackled drought conditions while battling the Sherpa Fire along the Gaviota Coast, as well as dry brush during the Rey Fire in the Santa Barbara back country and the Canyon Fire at the Vandenberg Air Force Base.
“We had a lot of large fires locally,” Anderson said.
Wednesday’s one-day drill focused on covering the tactics used to perform effective communication, brushing up on structure-defense skills, evacuation procedures and air-operation techniques.
Firefighters didn’t practice responding to actual set fires.
The pretend fire behavior during the drill was modeled to mirror the 2009 Jesusita Fire conditions, with wild winds and a fast-moving blaze.
Personnel practiced additional emergency situations that may occur at any time, such as firefighters facing exhaustion amid extreme heat, members having allergic reactions after being stung by a bee or a bystander vehicle accident.
“The main incident is the wild-land fire, but within that, there’s opportunity for other emergencies,” Anderson said. “We are throwing different scenarios at the firefighters so they can deal with anything.”
The drill helped mutual-aid resources from other regions become familiar with Santa Barbara’s urban front country, and improved relationships with surrounding fire departments, Anderson said.
“It’s good that we know each other so we can respond more effectively,” Anderson said.
Homeowners can also play a role in adopting wildfire mitigation strategies by creating a defensible space around their home, Anderson added.
The proper clearance of vegetation and debris around a house increases the chance of it surviving a fire, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The Wildland Suppression Assessment District provides services to help citizens living in the city of Santa Barbara who seek information about reducing possible damage in high fire hazard areas.
“Each home is different,” Anderson said. “Firefighters and personnel are available to meet with homeowners to help them understand what they can do, and answer questions about defensible space.”
— Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.