A slide depicts the defensible space zones that firefighters believe is the first step in protecting one’s home.
A slide depicts the defensible space zones that firefighters believe is the first step in protecting one’s home. (Ray Ford photo)

In an ironic twist, the crew of the Blackhawk helicopter on display at last weekend’s Wildfire Preparedness Exposition was called to duty on Sunday afternoon when a wildfire in the Goleta foothills ignited just a few miles away from the event.

Given intense high sundowner winds occurring at the time, it appeared that homes near Stow Grove Park might be threatened.

In a vivid example of a quick, effective response by engine crews, dozers and a number of water drops by the helicopter crew, the fire was quickly contained. 

However, fire officials on the scene were quick to point out that we may not be so lucky the next time, and the time is now to prepare for that eventuality.

Model of Shared Public Safety

The Santa Barbara County Fire Safe Council’s weekend event, held at Direct Relief in Goleta, was designed especially with this in mind.

The goal was a strategic one: create an annual event to bring the community and fire-related agencies together, build a partnership for working together to create a fire-resilient community, and provide guidance for those who would like to be involved.

Fire Marshal Rob Hazard provides the opening talk of last weekend’s Wildfire Preparedness Exposition.

Fire Marshal Rob Hazard provides the opening talk of last weekend’s Wildfire Preparedness Exposition. (Ray Ford photo)

“What we are working to build is a model of shared public safety,” Joan Hartmann, Third District county supervisor and Fire Safe Council board member, told the audience last Friday night. 

Describing the Fire Safe Council as “an organization through which we deliberately create relationships to promote wildfire safety through education and action,” Hartmann said she sees the group’s role as a countywide hub for building fire-resilient communities.

Getting to Know Each Other

With firetrucks, engine crews, the new county firefighting Blackhawk helicopter, dozens of exhibits and displays, and fire-related speakers and panel discussions, there were plenty of opportunities to mingle.

Paula Lopez leads a discussion with Kendra Duncan O’Connor, who was a survivor of the Paint Fire.

Paula Lopez leads a discussion with Kendra Duncan O’Connor, who was a survivor of the Paint Fire. (Ray Ford photo)

Along with adult-focused activities, there was also plenty for kids to enjoy, ranging from checking out the Blackhawk helicopter or the fire equipment, to learning how to use an extinguisher to put out a fire or spending a few moments in the “Walk into Wildfire” exhibit surrounded by fire.

Signaling a New Direction

“Our communities are the most important part of this whole equation,” Santa Barbara County Fire Marshal Rob Hazard told the audience during his keynote speech Friday night. “You can all rebuild your homes, you can fix the roads, you can fix the infrastructure, but it’s the community that we need to really be focusing on. That’s your neighborhoods, that’s your neighbors, your families.”

A chart provides a detailed look at how defensible space and home hardening can help protect a home.

A chart provides a detailed look at how defensible space and home hardening can help protect a home. (Ray Ford photo)

Two seasons of disastrous wildfires and multibillion costs, impacts from climate change and concern that fire seasons could become even more destructive have led to the conclusion that fire-proof communities can’t be built simply by hardening homes or adding defensible space — however important that is.

Fire-Resilient Communities

Another of the main goals of the exposition was to get homeowners to think in terms of fire resiliency as a cooperative process involving the entire community.

Simply stated, community fire resilience is “the capacity of it to adapt to and recover from a fire and resume to restore itself in a timely and efficient fashion.” 

But what exactly does this mean?

“We need to be looking at the idea of resiliency in much larger terms,” Hazard said. “It’s not just about home protection. As an example, we need to be looking at landscape resilience, and that includes agriculture, grazing, maintaining natural vegetation, habitat restoration and land conservation efforts.”

A model of a home and landscape half practicing fire resiliency practices and the other not.

A model of a home and landscape half practicing fire resiliency practices and the other not. (Ray Ford photo)

Hazard also noted that resiliency includes things not recognized as such, including the electrical grid, water systems, evacuation routes, building integrity, workable insurance systems and the like. Much of that, Hazard said, requires cooperative solutions.

One of the council’s newest programs, FireWise USA, is an example of the new approach, one in which areas as few as eight homes or as many as 2,500 can volunteer to help become fire-resilient communities.

New Funding Sources Coming Online

The “Walk Into Wildfire” exhibit provides an immersion experience of a wildfire.

The “Walk Into Wildfire” exhibit provides an immersion experience of a wildfire. (Ray Ford photo)

Along with shifting to a more community-based approach, large sums of money are being made available at the state level through use of cap and trade funds that should provide the funding to make fire resiliency a reality.

Currently, the cap and trade funds are being used to support a massive program called the California Climate Investments initiative. It is designed to promote sustainable practices to further the state’s climate goals.

A young boy learns more about the use of home-hardening techniques.

A young boy learns more about the use of home-hardening techniques. (Ray Ford photo)

Locally, the funds are being directed toward fire resiliency through the Regional Wildfire Mitigation Program, whose motto is “Wildfire Mitigation Through Landscape, Built Environment, and Community Resilience.”

RWMP has, in turn, designated the Fire Safe Council to manage a number of programs, including Firesafe USA, community wildfire planning, chipping programs, and use of goat and sheep grazing and other educational efforts.

Exceeding Expectations

A young girl learns how to use an extinguisher to put out a fire.

A young girl learns how to use an extinguisher to put out a fire. (Ray Ford photo)

“The event exceeded my expectations,” Fire Safe Council President Paul Van Leer told me. “I think we provided a lot of useful information through the speakers, the exhibits and the interactions.”

By Sunday afternoon, Van Leer said he expected that several hundred families had participated who he hopes can help take the lead in building community involvement. 

The upper photo depicts what ember flow looks like in a big wind. Below is what it actually looks like in a fire.

The upper photo depicts what ember flow looks like in a big wind. Below is what it actually looks like in a fire. (Lower photo by Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

Upper photo of the county’s Blackhawk helicopter at Direct Relief on Saturday. Below shows it in action on Sunday on a small fire near Stow Grove.

Upper photo of the county’s Blackhawk helicopter at Direct Relief on Saturday. Below shows it in action on Sunday on a small fire near Stow Grove. (Ray Ford photo)

“The people I’ve talked to have been really engaged and have been asking how they can be involved,” he said.

Look for the next year to be an exciting one.

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For more information about how you or your neighborhood can be involved in making your community fire resilient, contact the Santa Barbara County Fire Safe Council.

Noozhawk outdoor writer Ray Ford can be reached at rford@noozhawk.com. Click here for his website, SBoutdoors.com. Follow him on Twitter: @riveray. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Families mingle with firefighters at the event.

Families mingle with firefighters at the event. (Ray Ford photo)

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.