One week ago, nearly 500 Montecito residents swarmed El Montecito Presbyterian Church to attend an emergency meeting about the Zaca Fire. A week later the fire continues to burn, charring more than 100,000 acres to date and continuing, even today, to create plumes of smoke behind Montecito. To get current, Montage spent some time today with Montecito Fire Protection District Chief Kevin Wallace.
Chief Wallace, it has been a week since the Montecito Fire District held one of the largest town hall meetings in the history of Montecito. Your goal was to prepare the community for emergency action should the Zaca Fire come toward the community. It seems the fire has turned to the north. Is Montecito out of danger?
Chief Kevin Wallace: I would say we need to stay vigilant today and tomorrow because of the triple digit hot weather and the dry humidity. After tomorrow [Wednesday August 15], because of some of the good news we have had this week about the fire being turned away from us and heading north, if things continue going that direction, I would say we will be out of it.
Why don’t they just load DC 10 and put this thing out?
I worked on the Malibu fire and saw them pull ocean water out for Malibu, but water drops are not the final solution, especially for a fire in terrain like this. Drops do not work in broken topography like we have in the Santa Barbara backcountry. For a drop to be effective, you need a long straight ridge you can paint. East Camino Cielo is a perfect example of where that strategy would work.
No one thing can solve this problem. It is a long and difficult process. You put retardant down ahead of the fire to slow it down, but it takes actual firefighters to dig the containment lines that stop the fire. It takes four hours just to get firefighters to some of the fire lines. The firefighters are living out there, so they won’t have to make an eight-hour daily round trip back and forth. They really are doing everything they can but the wilderness has made it hard.
What are these huge plumes of smoke today I’ve seen right behind Montecito. They look like thunderheads and they look very close. Shouldn’t I be alarmed?
There are two reasons for the large plumes today behind Montecito. There are some islands closer to Montecito that have burned off and, secondly, the perspective can be difficult. On a clear dry day, even if the smoke plume is 20 miles away, it can look very near. The plumes, by the way, are caused by columns of warm smoke pushing through the inversion layer. When it does, it hits the colder air, ices up, and turns white, like a thundercloud. The fire is trying to get breath and that is the exhaust going through the top-it exhales and breathes in and exhales again and then after creating the plume and getting breath, it falls back down.
How should we in Montecito be preparing at this point? Is it OK to resume our normal lives now and leave our homes for out-of-town vacations or business needs?
I think if we get through Wednesday, it would be okay to go out of town. However, if the fire crosses the Don Victor Jeepway or the Hildrith Jeepway, then we could be back to the bigger burnout plan near the Santa Ynez River behind Montecito. If that happens, there will be more smoke and ash in Montecito. So for the next few days people need to remain vigilant and pay attention to public information.
What is a burnout? It sounds illogical to create even more fire.
In a burnout, firefighters set a fire from a containment line and they let the fire burn back into the main fire. In certain incidents it is a very good idea. You have a lot of water and personnel to watch the fire and manage it, but any fire on the ground is uncontrolled and you do have challenges.
At this point the strategy of working direct on the existing fire line is the best and safest strategy, if you can reach the line. And by the way, if they do a burnout, they don’t just nuke the whole area. They burn a part at a time. It is done in pieces but you do sacrifice a lot of the forest to do it.
You were talking about the spread of public information. In the last week the Montecito Fire District has set up an awesome program of public information and outreach. You have a staffed information kiosk at the village green that always seems crowded; you are sending Zaca Fire update emails daily and you are now officially the “Voice of Montecito” with our first local radio station, AM 1370. Do you feel the public is getting the message and do you think that supplying all this information has eased fears?
That was our intent: to let the public understand what is going on. The volume of calls to the fire station has dropped, so I think people are getting our message and feeling more reassured that Montecito residents have several emergency information resources, offering factual and timely information.
I believe I saw former Montecito Fire Chief Herb McElwee alongside Zaca Fire Incident Commander Bill Molumby. Is Chief McElwee helping at Live Oak Camp with the top command?
Yes, Montecito Fire Protection District’s former Chief, Herb McElwee, is the command staff liaison. The liaison helps the incident commander interact with local agencies and Herb has such extensive experience in Santa Barbara County that he has been tasked with that job.
Is anyone else from Montecito Fire actively involved in on the front lines?
Yes, former Chief Ron McClain is serving as the Public Information Officer at Live Oak Camp and Curtis Vincent is working with Public Information Center in Goleta. We have also sent one engine with four people to the Paradise Canyon area and MERRAG has volunteers on various public safety assignments for the Sheriff.
As of this morning, this fire had burned 101,472 acres. Is this the largest fire in California history?
Not at this point. I can think of other fires that were bigger. The Cedar Fire, Day Fire, and Matilija, the McNally and Wheeler fires were all bigger. However, if the anticipated containment lines were reached, Zaca could come close to being one of the largest fires in California history.
Is there anything else we should know right now? Have you learned anything from this experience that you’d like to share?
The emergency training – for safety personnel and citizens – has been very valuable learning experience and will last us years and years. Locally we have learned we need more hazard abatement in the hills above Montecito and the community needs to work on this. Also I think the public has become more aware of where to go for information.
Chief Wallace, for the hundreds and hundreds of citizens who have told me how much they appreciate your response to this emergency, may I pass on a collective community thank you and, for the moment, a tiny sigh of relief.
WE TRY HARDER: Deputy Tom Green has been selected to replace Isaiah Tchobanoff as Montecito’s Community Resource Deputy. Green has been with Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department for over three years, and prior to his law enforcement career he was employed in the private sector in customer service.
“Senior Deputy Green was in customer service in the rental car business and restaurant management. Seeing his interaction and problem resolution skills, we expect him to excel as a community resource deputy,” said Lt. Darin Fotheringham, Green’s commanding officer.
The Community Resource Deputy program began in Montecito in September 2005. Green will serve the unincorporated coastal area of southern Santa Barbara, including both Montecito and Summerland. Several cities that contract Sheriff’s Department services also have Community Resource Deputies, including Carpinteria, Solvang, Buellton, and, soon, Goleta.
“It expands our community policing effort and that is good. We’ve been able to interact with different groups, help with disaster preparedness, and do outreach in the schools and in the community,” Fotheringham said. Deputy Tchobanoff, who was extremely popular in Montecito due to his helpful approach and good-natured personality, has been transferred to Isla Vista and promoted to the supervisor-senior deputy.
Deputy Green said he looks forward to his new post. “What I would like to do is bring my people-skills to various sector of law enforcement-a more human side of the badge. I want to be approachable and meet the needs of the community,” he said. Green will hold office hours at Montecito Hall, 1465 East Valley Road, every Wednesday from 1 to 3 p.m., and by appointment. Call 684-5405 ext. 436.
CARUSO CAME TO TOWN: Rick Caruso, new owner of the Miramar, was scheduled to make a presentation to the Board of Director of the Montecito Association at 4 p.m. on Tuesday August 14. Association president Bill Palladini said the board sees the visit as a courtesy review so MA members can get to know the project. The board will take no action, as Caruso’s Miramar plans are not yet complete.
RED FLAG OPENS 144 GATE: The gate at the lower end of Sycamore Canyon, uniting Montecito with Santa Barbara, has been open both Monday and Tuesday due to a red flag alert. Last week, the lock on the gate was cut and the gate was illegally opened. Caltrans replaced the lock and no suspect has been identified in the vandalism case. Don Miller, who has become known for using a chainsaw to remove brush along the Caltrans route, denied cutting the lock. “I did not cut the lock. I wouldn’t do that but I am glad it is open today” he told Montage.
FRIDAY PHOTO MONTAGE: Even though there has been a serious emergency situation this week due the Zaca Fire, Montage has attended some interesting events and we want to report on them. Check this space Friday for a photo-montage of interesting people and places we’ve visited, including a breakfast with Lois Capps, a book signing where we saw Naomi Schwartz, and a Montecito cooking class with a private chef! As usual, if you want to know what’s cooking, keep tuned to Montage!