Every year at this time some official statement is issued that asserts the approaching fire season may be “unusually severe” or “the worst in decades.” Sometimes the predictions come true; sometimes they don’t. If we’re not careful, the message goes unnoticed, like background music. We run the risk of deadening the public’s response to a very real threat.

At a recent meeting of the Fire Chief’s Association of Santa Barbara County, chiefs from several agencies and departments discussed the upcoming fire season and what we might expect. We reviewed data compiled by the Forest Service comparing historic rainfall records and fire seasons. It was a sobering experience.

This year the rainfall in Santa Barbara County is 30 percent of normal. From a fire chief’s perspective, it’s even worse than it sounds. The timing of rainfall determines its effectiveness. Generally speaking, late rains are helpful, while early rains, like those we experienced this year, are not as beneficial. The live chaparral in many areas of the county is as dry as we normally see it in August. In March, several local fire agencies teamed up to conduct prescribed burns to reduce hazardous fuels in the Santa Barbara backcountry of Los Padres National Forest. We witnessed aggressive fire behavior that we normally don’t see until late in the summer. It was a wake-up call.

With the official start of the 2002 fire season, we are staging additional firefighting resources at strategic locations throughout the country and Los Padres National Forest. For the County Fire Department, this means beefed-up dispatches to wildland fires and expanded use of the helicopter and ‘dozers. The Forest Service will have three additional fire engines, a new ‘dozer and water tender, and a helicopter with a 10-person helishot crew stationed at the Santa Ynez Airport.

Many of our fire departments will increase staffing levels when severe weather conditions are imminent. We will put firefighters in call-back status and stagger their vacations to ensure coverage. We will be careful about how many firefighters we send on “out of county” fire assignments, while remembering that we rely heavily on resources from throughout California and beyond during our times of need. Even with all these augmentations, the depth of first responders within Santa Barbara County is lean.

Dry brush, strong winds and vulnerable neighborhoods are the ingredients for catastrophic fires in our “urban wildland interface” areas. At the height of a wind-driven fire, most of the traditional tools of the fire service are compromised. Helicopters and air tankers are grounded, protective foams dissipate, hose streams are blown to useless spray. Saving lives becomes our primary concern.

Recently, a coalition of emergency response agencies – joined by elected officials, Fire Safe Council members, local homeowners, American Red Cross representatives and other volunteers – went door to door in “at risk” neighborhoods. Our message was simple; we hope it was clear: Take responsibility. Have a plan. Identify your evacuation route. Prepare your home and your family. Act now.

When the call comes – and it will – our firefighters will move quickly to defend the homes that are defendable. Will yours be one of them? Are you ready?

John Scherrei is Santa Barbara County’s fire chief.