The Whittier Fire moved along the north side of the Santa Ynez Mountains at a dramatic pace due to the abundance of tinder-dry grass and gusting winds. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

An errant spark created by repairs being done on a car near the office of a local outdoor camp catches fire at the edge of a nearby grass meadow.

It’s early June, and the temperature is rising rapidly. It’ll be a hot day near Lake Cachuma.

Fire moves through the hillsides faster than a person can run. Within two minutes, the hillsides are completely engulfed. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

The early spring months have been kind to the local foothills, and a series of May rains have provided for a burst of new growth.

They are captivatingly beautiful for a month, but by June the grasses are thigh high and slowly turning a golden brown. Their potential for creating the next major fire is growing by the day.

At this point, basically anything that can spark has the power to make that happen. 

The golden grasses of summer provide the perfect medium for carrying a wildfire. Grasses like these are a key ingredient in the growth of a small fire into a big one. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

Power of the Wind and Grass

The winds coming up the Santa Ynez Valley are mostly gentle in the morning, but just as the sun’s heat begins to dry out the grasses they become more powerful.

By noon on a hot day, especially on one of those scorchers that is characteristic of our summer months — where with winds that begin to move the heated air up the valley and laterally up the side drainages — almost all of it is burn ready. That includes the backsides of the Santa Ynez Mountains or interior parts of the backcountry. 

Both wind and topography will play a large role in determining how quickly a fire might spread and how quickly the heavier chaparral vegetation will super heat to the point that it, too, will burn.

But access to the flashy, lightweight non-native grasses and other low density fuels may play a determining role whether that happens.

The 2016 Rey Fire: Controlling a Grass-Fed Fire

The slideshow below provides a detailed look at how a fire can expand rapidly.

Though we haven’t had the threat of a major wildfire coming from the backside of the Santa Ynez Mountains, surprisingly, when the Whittier Fire breaks out near the lake on June 7, 2017, it only takes four hours until the wind-driven flames reach Winchester Saddle, where they can be seen from the Goleta area.

Much of this is because of the volume of grass-covered slopes that allows the fire to move quickly across the foothills.

The Looming Threat

The Santa Ynez Valley’s rolling grass-covered foothills, abundance of recreational opportunities and popular swim holes and picnic areas are increasingly becoming a source of concern to wildfire specialists. Combining vegetation that will burn easily with loads of people creates loads of challenges.

The Whittier Fire expands across Highway 154 toward Cachuma Lake. The grasses and light brush beneath the oak canopy can carry a fire through them. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

The Whittier Fire has shown that under similar conditions, other parts of the north slopes may be vulnerable as well. When I sat down with Mark Von Tillow, the incident commander for the Whittier Fire, he shared with me a sense of surprise. 

“We’ve only had one major fire on the back side of the Santa Ynez in the last 50 years,” he explains, “and that was one near the Bee Quarry that was put out without too much difficulty.”

Von Tillow has been employed by the Los Padres National Forest for more than three decades and is one of its most experienced wildfire experts. He is now seeing conditions more extreme now that has been the case for most of his career.

Fortunately on the Whittier Fire, crews get a lucky break when the wind off the ocean turns into an onshore breeze, allowing air support, dozers and heli-drops to contain the fire at Winchester Saddle.

The Sherpa Fire as it approaches the El Capitan Canyon Ranch demonstrates how the embers from distant flames can expand the fire perimeter well away from the main part of the fire. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

Crossing the Next Maginot Line 

Similar to the lack of backside fires on the Santa Ynez Mountains along the lower Santa Ynez River, there are no record of fires ignited within the Los Padres National Forest recreation areas having crossed over the Santa Ynez River and threatened the Santa Barbara area.

The Zaca Fire came close to crossing the river near Jameson Reservoir in 2007; the 2013 White Fire, which started when embers escaped from an overturned barbecue at the White Rock Picnic Area, did as well. And most recently, wind-driven flames from the 2016 Rey Fire came within hundreds of yards of crossing the river near the upper end of Gibraltar Reservoir.

But given climate change and the fact that most of the lower and upper recreation areas have been converted to non-native grasses and other lightweight vegetation, it is likely one may in the future.

Lessons From the Backside

As we enter July, conditions in the valley are similar now to those at the start of the Whittier Fire.

There will be July 4 celebrations, campfires in places that will allow them, illegal fireworks no matter what the restrictions, plenty of alcohol and partying. 

And plenty of tinder-dry grasses. 

Freeway fire along the Fairview Avenue part of Highway 101 shows how intense urban fires can become. Encampment fires can occur near homes that are nowhere near the wildland-urban interface. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

Flashy Fuels

Flashy fuels can be soaked by the early morning’s dew and dry enough to burn an hour after the sun has come up. 

By their nature, the non-native grasses that dominate the landscape provide the perfect source of fuel for the next wildfire regardless of season. Hold a handful of the grasses in your hands and they’ll light at the touch of a match.

Add wind as an accelerant and they’ll ignite from the tiniest of sparks and be almost impossible to stop.

When discovered by a hiker on a Tuesday afternoon in 2009, the Jesusita Fire had barely begun to burn — the pile of glowing litter was barely a yard across. Yet, the hiker was unable to put it out.

A rancher in Venadito Canyon tries in vain to hold the fire line. Even where the grasses are a few inches tall, wind will carry the flames faster than they can be contained. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

This is similar to when a spark from a kite ignited the Sycamore Canyon Fire in 1977 or the heat from a muffler started the Coyote Fire in 1964 or the ricochet from a bullet at an informal target range sparked the Marre Fire in the early 1990s.

When it is hot and dry, the wind is blowing and an abundance of flashy fuels is nearby, using extreme caution is a must.

Once a fire begins, there will be little chance you can put it out. 

Attempting to use a shovel to put out even a relatively light fire in the oak canopy can be almost impossible to control. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

Big Fires Start From Little Ones

When you’re talking about how fires start in the Santa Ynez Valley or front country, it is with few exceptions that fires start small and build from there. 

The campfire won’t light without adding tinder nor will the heavier chaparral vegetation without the lightweight flashy fuels to heat them to burning point.

Developing an awareness of the role these flashy type fuels play in transitioning small fires into big ones, and keeping a constant sense of vigilance whenever you are near them, could be the most important thing you can do to prevent the next Whittier or Rey or Jesusita or Tea Fire from occurring this summer.

Noozhawk outdoor writer Ray Ford can be reached at ray@sboutdoors.com. Follow him on Facebook: @riveray or Instagram: @riveray43.Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook. The opinions expressed are his own.