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Los Padres National Forest Service fire fighters

Paul Wellman

Los Padres National Forest Service fire fighters


Burning Questions

Inquiries on the Fire that Edged the City of Santa Barbara


Though the Jesusita Fire is extinguished, numerous questions linger in its destructive aftermath. Here are some answers.

What started the Jesusita Fire?

A human started this fire, say fire officials, who are investigating the use of trail-clearing power tools. Some nearby residents have disputed this theory, contending that they can hear every outdoor cough, given the neighborhood acoustics, and that no one heard power tools that day. Meanwhile, Vandenberg Air Force Base officials have repeatedly denied that the fire could have been caused by a May 5 rocket launch.

Why wasn’t the Jesusita Fire put out faster?

During last Thursday’s public forum with incident commanders at La Cumbre Junior High, County Fire Chief Tom Franklin said that a perfect storm of weather conditions created the ideal environment for rapid fire expansion. Because firefighting agencies were preparing for the “medium” fire period-in the high, low, and medium scheme of fire seasons-seasonal crews were in the midst of initial training.

City Fire Captain Pat McElroy explained that the first official report of smoke came at about 1:40 p.m. The initial dispatch, explained McElroy, was standard for any brush fire: Three fire engines and a battalion chief-McElroy himself-responded. By 1:48 p.m., the quickly spreading blaze was dubbed the Jesusita Fire, additional resources were ordered, and a unified command was established. Within the first hour of response, said Country Fire Division Chief Mark Schmidt, 10 engines, one bulldozer, one water tender, one hand crew, and two helicopters were on the scene, amounting to 64 initial responders.

Controversy remains over the response time. At Thursday’s forum, optometrist Larry Bickford challenged firefighters’ contention that they were on-scene within 10 minutes. The upper San Roque resident, who said he could see the fire’s point of origin, claimed he looked up at the hillsides as of 2:22 p.m. and saw no firefighters at the blaze.

Was there a delay in aerial support?

The first helicopter was on scene within 20 minutes of the fire report, said City Fire Chief Andy DiMizio. Air tankers soon followed, but there were delays due to a contract snafu. The fire retardant’s success was limited because dense vegetation stopped the substance from penetrating the chaparral.

How do firefighters do “structure protection”?

The primary reason that only 80 homes burned and more than 800 were saved was due to “structure protection.” The process begins when a strike team-consisting of five fire engines-is assigned to a specific neighborhood. The team first assesses the situation, scoping everything from road conditions and alternative water sources to landscaping and patio furniture. “If they determine the house is one they can save,” said County Fire spokesperson David Sadecki, “then that is where they will make their stand.” Houses deemed indefensible aren’t immediately abandoned, but do become a lower priority.

Next, firefighters use chainsaws and axes to clear brush and tree limbs and also relocate wood piles, propane tanks, and other hazards. Then firefighters coat houses in a thin layer of retardant foam, which must be strategically timed. If it goes on too early, the wind and sprayed water might wash it away. Too late, and it has no effect against the burning embers.

The final tool is the hose. Firefighters don’t spray the advancing flames but instead douse the smaller fires that pop up within the defensible area. In worst-case scenarios-with fire encroaching from all sides-there is one last and terrifying step: abandoning their posts for shelter inside a home. When this occurs, survival takes priority and actual structure protection ceases until it is safe to be outside.

What do I do if my house burned?

Take a very deep breath and get ready for the long haul. That’s what Tea Fire survivors told Jesusita Fire victims during Monday night’s meeting in the County Board of Supervisors hearing room. You’ll spend at least two months wrangling with the insurance company and you’ll need to find new digs for 18-24 months. By working together, victims can lighten their loads-for example, Tea Fire survivors formed a housing committee to help each other find accommodations. They’ve pledged to reactivate it.

A one-stop shop for homeowners has been set up in the County Administration Building, 105 East Anapamu Street, where the Local Assistance Center, or LAC, will be open daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Property owners who want to rebuild similar square footage on the same footprint will be fast-tracked and spared environmental and architectural reviews, but must meet all building code requirements. Fire officials have expressed concern about Mission Canyon’s narrow roads and driveways, and those concerns could raise bigger issues later. Property owners looking to expand must endure all normal review boards.

Watch out for scammers, say law enforcement officials, especially public claims adjusters who require a percentage of fire victims’ total insurance settlement as payment for their services.

The good news? Fire victims will be taken off the county’s property tax rolls until homes are rebuilt and will be given refund checks early this summer for property taxes they’ve already paid. Also good news: “You will get through this,” stressed Tea Fire survivor Claire Gottsdanker. Six months after the Tea Fire, her new house is sprouting from the ground. The Mountain Drive community has organized an insurance seminar for Jesusita Fire homeowners this Saturday, May 23, at 10 a.m., at the Red Cross, 2707 State Street.

There is also helpful information and community-building going on through the Community Assisting Recovery Web site, carehelp.org.

How can homeowners prepare for next time?

State law mandates a 100-foot buffer cleared of brush between homes and their surrounding landscape, with a 200-foot standard for steep hillsides. Check sbcfire.com for guidelines, and request a site visit by firefighters for recommendations. The City of Santa Barbara is hosting two free disaster preparedness seminars on May 21 and 28, from 6-9 p.m. Call 564-5703 for reservations.

Where can I donate to support firefighters and/or victims?

There will be a celebration of Jesusita Fire heroes on Tuesday, May 26, from 4-7 p.m., on the 700 and 800 blocks of State Street, including a 5:15 p.m. ceremony. Those who want to support the firefighters can donate to the Santa Barbara Firefighters Alliance (sbfirefightersalliance.org), which buys equipment and other aid, or the Santa Barbara County Firefighters Benevolent Foundation (sbcfbf.org), which supports families of firefighters injured in the line of duty.

Those looking to support fire survivors can donate or volunteer at the Unity Shoppe (unityshoppe.org), which is giving food and helping to replace everyday goods, and donate to the United Way of Santa Barbara (unitedwaysb.org); [805] 965-8591), which has established the Jesusita Fire Long-Term Recovery Fund. Volunteers can also see volunteersbc.org.

How did my favorite hiking trails fare?

The Independent‘s outdoors editor Ray Ford explained that the Jesusita Trail -where the fire started-was not the only trail destroyed. As of press time, all trails in the burn area are closed, including such popular hikes as Tunnel Trail, Seven Falls, Inspiration Point, Rattlesnake Canyon, the Rock Garden, Arroyo Burro, and the San Marcos Foothills Preserve. With major restoration work needed and mudslide potential high, Ford estimated that “most of the trails will probably be closed through next winter.” After surveying much of the burn zone, Ford figured the fire charred about 90 percent of Tunnel and Arroyo Burro trails, 50 percent of Jesusita, and that upper portions of Rattlesnake Canyon were “especially hard hit.” City, county, and federal Forest Service crews should have about six months of dry weather to get restoration underway, however.

For full and continuing Jesusita Fire recovery coverage, see independent.com/jesusita.

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