On the Fourth of July last year, the second largest inferno in California history ignited 35 miles northwest of Santa Barbara. Over the course of the following 117 days, the Zaca Fire consumed 240,207 acres of the Los Padres National Forest and demanded the attention of 2,100 firefighting personnel at the peak of its ferocity.
Almost 10 months later, Santa Barbara County is preparing for another fire season and hoping for the best, but planning for the worst.
While fire season typically begins in early or mid-May, the Santa Barbara County Fire Dept. has already sent out its first strike team – a group of fire trucks from many of the county’s municipalities, designed to contain a fire – of the new season. Additionally, Fire Dept. officials have also reported numerous small vegetation fires in and around Santa Barbara County as a result of drying grasses and high heat.
According to Capt. Eli Iskow, spokesman for the SB County Fire Dept., these large tracts of dry grass are a risk to the county and source of concern for the department.
“The big difference between this year and last is that we have more grass this year,” Iskow said. “Grass acts as a fuse, and spreads fire to the brush pretty quickly. It’s probably going to be easier for fires to start this year because of all this grass.”
Though the Zaca Fire still burns in recent memory, Iskow said there is no way to be certain about this year’s fire season. According to Iskow, last year’s incident is not an indication of a trend – several factors contributed to the size of the Zaca Fire, and he said the nature of fires yet to come is impossible to predict.
“[The Zaca Fire] was an unusual situation,” Iskow said. “The fire got so big because there was little-to-no way to control a fire like that until it reached a natural barrier, like ridge lines and roads. There is no real way to draw a connection between Zaca Fire and this year’s fire season. Predicting the upcoming fire season is like predicting the weather. You can’t really know.”
The state of California has firefighting departments at the city, county, state and federal government level. Some of Santa Barbara County falls under the jurisdiction of the state, whose firefighting efforts are organized by the California Dept. of Forestry and Fire Protection – more commonly known as CAL FIRE- which, among its many duties, determines the start and end dates of the official fire season.
According to Fire Marshal Daniel Berlant, spokesman for CAL FIRE, seasonal staff supplements routine firefighters during the more dangerous months and allows for a more thorough response to a potentially widespread event.
“Fire seasons are staggered up and down the state by regions, and are never quite the same each year,” Berlant said. “Typically, for Santa Barbara, fire season is in early or mid-May. Once it’s fire season, when there is a report of a fire, the county doesn’t just send one truck, as they would in the off-season. They send a bulldozer, several engine companies and air support.”
According to Iskow, last year’s fires were actually fewer in number than what is typically expected, however, those that did occur – like the Zaca Fire – were extremely serious. As the Zaca Fire was initiated by a spark expelled by nearby repair equipment, Iskow said he believed that the best way to prevent such disasters is to create “defensible space” – cutting away dry grass and eliminating the primary fuse.
“What this does is that it ensures that structure fires are less likely to transfer to the brush,” Iskow said. “Frequently, brush fires start from structure fires, but this is far less likely to happen if defensible space is enacted.”
As part of state legislation enacted in 2005, Santa Barbara County residents are required to provide defensible space around their homes as a preventative measure against fire danger. The conditions of the Defensible Space and Hazard Reduction Programs, as determined by the County Fire Dept., requires that all landowners in the county must maintain vegetation clearance for the first 30 feet beyond any structures on their property. Additionally, vegetation on the next 70 feet of a landowner’s property must be pruned and well-spaced to stem the possibility of the outbreak and spread of a fire.
According to Iskow, the Defensible Space regulations have been implemented in steps by the SBCFD since 2005, and this will be the first year that the regulations are fully enforced. Violators of theses regulations will receive misdemeanor citations and appropriate fines. While fire season marks a period of high risk, Iskow said that the best way to fight fires statewide is to be conscious of fire danger all year long.
“The big important message the public needs to know is that our environment is very combustible year-round, no matter how much rain we had, or how much grass there is,” Iskow said. “Some years, [Santa Barbara properties] are more combustible than others, but we are always combustible. So, the public needs to be prepared and knowledgeable. They need to be ready to evacuate if a fire is encroaching.”