A five-member panel on Friday examined extreme fire weather hazards in Santa Barbara County and discussed how residents can improve their resilience.
The free public event drew about 50 residents to county Office of Emergency Management headquarters on Cathedral Oaks Road in Santa Barbara. The more than two-hour community meeting is available online at the county’s YouTube channel.
“We have had fires that range the seasons, range conditions and range burn periods when they have done the most destruction,” said Nic Elmquist, wildland fire specialists with the Montecito Fire Protection District.
“The fire environment is one of the most dynamic environments you can imagine.”
A trend of warming temperatures is forecast to continue, he said, adding that “there are a lot more unknowns in terms of the precipitation.”
Temperatures are increasing and relative humidity is decreasing in coastal areas, particularly at high elevations and on mountain slopes, said Leila Carvalho, a professor of meteorology and climatology in UC Santa Barbara’s Department of Geography.
These trends might continue or exacerbate in the future, implying that fire hazards will increase in coastal communities, she told the crowd.
Carvalho emphasized the importance of understanding sundowner winds and climate change in the region, along with more observation research.
Increasing resilience in the changing environment is a community effort, she said, noting that education is essential in a tourist area.
Communities need to accommodate a growing population and must guarantee safety with fire prevention, accurate fire alerts and weather forecasts, and improved education strategies, Carvalho said.
Wildfires are inevitable, Santa Barbara County fire Battalion Chief Rob Hazard said. To some extent, wildfires are part of a natural process and play a role in the ecological effects of some plant communities.
“We live with fire,” he said. “Unlike some other emergencies, it’s not something we are going to completely prevent.”
Wildland firefighting agencies use the “fire behavior triangle” outlining three components — weather, fuels (vegetation) and topography — that interact to influence how a fire burns, Hazard explained.
The three sides of the “fire behavior triangle” guide future prevention actions, as well as prevention actions and suppression fire tactics.
Of the three elements, he said, “we can only take proactive measures with the fuel.”
Fuels are “dynamic” over time, he added.
Grasses from the mountains throughout the region provide fuel for fires, including the 2017 Thomas Fire. That wildfire erupted in Santa Paula in Ventura County before burning across the rugged Santa Ynez Mountains into Santa Barbara County, destroying 1,000 homes in the two counties, damaging hundreds more, and wiping out extensive animal and plant habitats. Two people died in the blaze.
The presence of strong sundowner winds drove the wildfire, which burned more than 282,000 acres, or 440 square miles.
Grasses are greener and taller after heavy rains, and “our mountains look like Ireland and we don’t have fires,” Hazard said.
But vegetation then turns parched and flammable when the seasons change.
“The season moves on … our fuels dry out, they become flammable, and we have this cycle where we engage in massive amounts of defensible space work and homeowners up in the hills are weed whacking and trying to become more safe,” Hazard said.
“It’s this constant cycle with the vegetation.”
Removing the fuel is paramount because there’s no control over the weather or the topography, he said.
“It is what it is,” Hazard said of the terrain. “The mountains are there, and for our lifetime, they are not going to change.”
Hazard presented the fire history of Santa Barbara County on a map dating back to the early 1900s.
Fire has had a significant impact on the South Coast.
“In the South Coast area, we have had a lot of fires over the years,” Hazard said. “There is no portion in the Santa Barbara South Coast that hasn’t been impacted by fire in the last 100 years — every square acre of it has been impacted by fire.”
The South Coast’s “extensive” green belts surrounding some agricultural communities have helped reduce the fire risk, he said.
Land-use planning, public education, fuel treatments and taking proactive measures are actions needed to become fire adapted, Hazard warned.
He stressed the importance of infrastructure hardening, creating plenty of “defensible space” around homes and a community resistant to burning.
“Every place has its own unique set of vulnerabilities,” Williams said. “Ours happens to be wildfire.”
UCSB geography professor Charles Jones moderated the discussion, which included a Q&A session.