Santa Barbara County firefighters are already sweating over the 2007 fire season, which came early this year due to the dearth of seasonal rain in the past few months.

The Santa Barbara County Fire Dept. has already responded to several wildfires this year, and will declare the beginning of fire season by May 14, a much earlier declaration than in years passed. In preparation for the fire season, the department will conduct inspections of properties located in rural and high fire hazard areas as early as this week.

“We send engines and check for clearings of brush and grass,” Eli Iskow, Santa Barbara County Fire Dept. spokesman, said. “We’re fighting a wildfire right now on Figueroa Mountain, so there’s definitely a method to our madness.”

Homeowners in the high fire hazard areas are required through state law to maintain a “defensible space” around their property. This includes a 30-foot clearing from the perimeter of the house and a 70-foot “reduced fuel zone” of well-spaced, fire resistant vegetation.

A well-kept defensible space can be extremely effective in preventing most major conflagrations, Iskow said.

“We’ve lost thousands of homes some years. In 2005 we lost about 3,500 homes to fires in Southern California,” he said. “If homeowners had provided defensible space, roughly 80 percent of those homes would’ve survived. People need to be much more protective, it’s what people can do for themselves.”

Recognizing that defensible space is a relatively new concept, the fire department has planned a “Wildfire Awareness Week,” beginning on May 21, to explain and demonstrate the safety a good defensible space can provide.

“The laws have changed a little,” Iskow said. “There’s a new emphasis on defensible space. We’re launching a campaign so people will know. These are state laws; it isn’t something we’re making up.”

Iskow said that an unsafe perimeter is not only dangerous to the house and its residents, but also a risk to firefighters should the property light ablaze.

“You have to be responsible for your own property,” he said. “If a house is indefensible, we will bypass it for one that can be defended. We’ve lost too many firemen fighting fires in houses that aren’t defensible.”