Flames from the Cave Fire burn behind a residence last November.
Flames from the Cave Fire burn behind a residence last November. Local officials declared high fire season this week, and are ramping up resources to fight wildfires. They also are urging residents to take steps to protect life and property. (Noozhawk file photo)

The Santa Barbara County Fire Department, in conjunction with other local fire jurisdictions, this week declared the official start of the 2020 high fire season period for all areas in the county.

All burn permits issued for residential burning and hazard reduction will be suspended because of the declaration, according to county fire Capt. Daniel Bertucelli.

In addition, the county Fire Department is increasing its resources, including fire engines, bulldozers, helicopters and fire crews, to be ready to respond to vegetation fires.

“The SBCFD would like to take this opportunity to remind everyone who lives, works and plays in Santa Barbara County to be extra vigilant about fire safety this fire season,” Bertucelli said. “Remember to maintain vegetation clearance around structures, review and be familiar with your Ready! Set! Go! wildfire action plan, and be extra cautious and aware when traveling or staying in the wildland areas of the county.”

For more information about the Ready! Set! Go! wildfire preparedness, click here.

Santa Barbara County Fire Division Chief/ Fire Marshal Rob Hazard said the severity of any given wildfire season is dependent on three primary factors — fuel conditions, weather conditions and ignitions.

Ignitions tend to be random, Hazard said.

“The majority of fires in our county are accidental human caused, with power lines and vehicles comprising the majority of ignitions,” he said. “We average about 80 fires per year, most being suppressed at 10 acres or less.” 

Weather is also difficult to predict on a seasonal basis, Hazard explained.

It looks like there’s a potential for more mild weather conditions through August, according to the seasonal outlook from the Southern California Geographic Area Coordination Center.

A one-day local sundowner wind event that coincides with a random ignition would skew the forecast a bit, Hazard added.

The fuel conditions have several components that can contradict one another, Hazard said.

“For example, this year the woody vegetation (trees, chaparral, etc.) have higher moisture content than last year due to the large amount of late season precipitation we received,” he said. “That same late season rain also gives us an abundant crop of annual grass. Once that grass cures, it is quite flammable. 

“Grass fires are pretty easy for us to suppress so we don’t expect huge conflagrations, but we could have potentially more small and medium size fires,” he continued. “After August, the woody vegetation will have much lower moisture levels and be much more available to combust.”

The possibility of a wildfire exists essentially throughout the year.

“The fires we have had over the last 10 years have shown us that it can happen year-round,” said Amber Anderson, a wildland fire specialist with the Santa Barbara City Fire Department.

City firefighters train all year long to be ready to respond to vegetation or wildland fires, Anderson said.

“We do escalate our training in the spring and ramp it up with what we call our annual refresher training, which is required for all of the firefighters every year based on national guidelines,” Anderson said, mentioning most of the training occurred in late March and early April. 

“All of our firefighters are qualified to respond to wildland fires,” Anderson said.

Another big thing on people’s minds is the wildfire response during the coronavirus pandemic and observing protocols meant to slow the spread of the virus.

Top fire officials are working to ensure the ability to effectively respond to wildfires amid the public health emergency.

“While nothing is concrete because that situation is evolving so fast,” Anderson said, “upper management and fire leadership are taking a close look at how we can run an effective fire camp with social distancing and minimizing the risks for exposure for firefighters.”

This week, Santa Barbara property owners in the high-fire hazard area were sent a notification by mail about the requirement to maintain and clear their defensible space to can help stop or slow the spread of wildfire. There are about 4,500 properties within the city’s high-fire hazard area, Anderson said.

“It means removing dead vegetation, separating vegetation, and looking at ways to plant fire-resistant landscaping,” Anderson said. “That’s some of the biggest things homeowners — specifically in our high-fire hazard area — can do to minimize their risk, and also it helps firefighters do a better job during a wildland fire.”

Evacuation plans and communication among family members about what to do to be safe in advance of a wildfire are other ways in which the public can better prepare for future fire incidents.

Residents are urged to identify two ways to get out of a physical property in advance of catastrophes.

“One of the things firefighters always look at is having two ways out of any situation,” Anderson said. “We encourage homeowners to do the same.”

The U.S. Forest Service encouraged responsible recreation practices while visiting national forests to reduce fire hazards.

Many cooped-up people are going outside and seeking relief from staying inside amid coronavirus — especially with the warmer daytime temperatures.

The Los Padres National Forest announced campgrounds managed by concessionaire will remain closed through June 1 consistent with state and local health guidelines that promote proper social distancing and discourage large gatherings.

“Outdoor recreation is beneficial to mental and physical health, but must be practiced safely,” said Andrew Madsen, a Los Padres National Forest spokesman. “The Forest Service is focused on ensuring the health and safety of our employees, our concessionaires and the public while maintaining our ability to provide mission-critical services, including emergency fire response, law enforcement, and support for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.”

Madsen said if you plan to visit the National Forest, please be aware that: 

» No trash removal is offered – pack out all waste and trash.

» All toilet facilities are closed – plan accordingly.

» Avoid high-risk activities – search and rescue, and law enforcement operations may be limited.

» Search for a less occupied location if an area is crowded.

“We are working with our state and local partners to determine the best path forward to safely reopen these closed sites,” Madsen said. “Please keep health, safety and the environment in mind when visiting national forests. 

“Your personal responsibility is critical to ensuring public safety and preventing further restrictions. Visitors are encouraged to recreate in areas close to home and avoid traveling long distances.”

Certain fire restrictions will remain in effect until next year throughout the Los Padres National Forest to protect natural resources and provide public safety.

There’s an increasing potential for a wildland fire in areas where significant late-season rainfall produced a large grass crop and an abundance of fine fuels, the U.S. Forest Service said.

In response, the restrictions will affect the use of stoves, campfires, smoking materials and internal combustion engines, and will remain in place until Jan. 31, according to the Los Padres National Forest officials.

Click here to view the fire restrictions that will continue through the rest of this year and into early next year on the forest.

Santa Barbara County posts emergency preparedness and disaster response information on its website at ReadySBC.org and in Spanish at https://readysbc.org/es/.

Click here to sign up or update your contact information or areas of interest for ReadySBC notifications and emergency information.

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at bholland@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.