This year, the Santa Barbara County Fire Dept. is instituting new education and brush clearance programs in an effort to extinguish fire season before it starts.
Fire season officially started on June 1, Santa Barbara County Fire Dept. Captain Diondray Wiley said, but the fire department has been working on ways to reduce summer fires since mid-May. He said the fire department predicts that a high number of small fires will occur during this year’s fire season because heavy rains in the winter and spring contributed to rapid growth of the grasses that fuel such minor blazes. To educate landowners about fire prevention and safety, the fire department began its Hazard Reduction Program on Monday, and Wiley said the county will also be inspecting local homes to ensure that they are prepared for fire season.
Gracie Huerta, public education coordinator for the Santa Barbara City Fire Dept., said firefighters are working with the county on the Hazard Reduction Program to teach residents living in areas that contain large quantities of dry vegetation how to protect their homes from summer wildfires by doing proper brush clearance on their properties.
“This year, we targeted Eucalyptus Hill and Montecito,” Huerta said. “Our education program is a combined effort between all county fire departments, police departments and the Los Padres [National] Forest for people in the danger area to know about clearance.”
As part of the education program, firefighters have begun going door to door and meeting with the homeowner’s associations in areas they deem dangerous to inform residents about precautions that can help prevent fires, Huerta said. She said the majority of homes that survive wildfires do so because their owners clear brush and debris away from buildings and yards.
Huerta said homeowners should always have an evacuation plan ready in case a Red Flag Alert — an alarm raised by the county fire chief when there are strong winds and temperatures at or above 95 degrees on the same day — is sounded. In the event that a wildfire occurs under such dangerous conditions, planning ahead can help homeowners gain the extra time they need to protect their homes before they evacuate, Huerta said.
“If there’s time,” Huerta said, “You should turn off electricity, gas, and lock doors. But if there’s no time, just go.”
U.S. Forest Service worker Joe Pasinato said county firefighters are also going to inspect local homes throughout the summer to make sure they are not cluttered by debris that could fuel a wildfire.
“Our engines are going to do inspections,” Pasinato said. “As of January 1, a new state law says you need to have a 100-ft. clearance or clear space until the end of your property line. Basically, we want to keep roofs clear of litter, which includes leaves, and have people trim their trees.”
Pasinato said the county has 314 firefighters, 25 fire engines, 14 fire-prevention patrol units, 3 helicopters and 2 hotshot crews ready for the fire season. He said a hotshot crew is a group of firefighters who create barriers directly in the path of fires in an attempt to stop or slow their spread. If a major fire breaks out in another county, Santa Barbara County can only distribute a portion of its resources to help other fire departments, Pasinato said.
“We have preset limits to what can be sent,” Pasinato said. “If a number of resources are deployed to another county, we keep enough resources for ourselves. We will never send all of our resources away.”
Fires can break out during any time of the year, Pasinato said, but every year, the Santa Barbara County Fire Dept., the Ventura County Fire Dept. and the USDA Forest Service determine a specific season when wildfires are more than likely to occur and additional resources may be necessary to account for the high fire danger. He said factors that increase the likelihood and destructive potential of fires include high winds, hot temperatures, thick brush and low fuel moisture.
Pasinato said it is hard to tell when fire season will be over, but he said he predicts it will end around September or October.
“This year will be interesting, with all the rainfall,” Pasinato said. “We are going to wait and see what’s going to happen.”