Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Tom Franklin
Paul Wellman

For those confused or interested about how the Jesusita Fire has been managed and attacked throughout the week, the May 14 community meeting held at La Cumbre Junior High shed light on all facets of the multi-agency effort. Officials from the five organizations that composed unified command – the centralized entity which, as a single unit, controlled and delegated the thousands who worked in tandem to battle the blaze – took turns walking the attendees through the nitty-gritty of large-scale firefighting strategies and emergency management.

Post Jesusita Fire meeting at La Cumbre Jr. High School
Paul Wellman

Moderated by Drew Sugars,Sheriff’s Department public information officer, the meeting began with County Fire Chief Tom Franklin’s short presentation on the history of Santa Barbara fires, including an explanation of why the Jesusita Fire was such an anomaly. The early timing of the fire, Franklin said, confirmed officials’ recent decision to consider fire season to be year-round, “We’re always in a fire season.” He noted that the Jesusita Fire sparked so early in the spring that fire crews were still preparing for the start of the “medium” fire period – seasonal crews were even in the midst of their first-stage, initial training sessions, said Franklin.

The chief went on to highlight the perfect storm of weather conditions that helped fuel this month’s blaze. On the day the fire began, Tuesday, May 5, 85 degree temperatures and strong 60 mph offshore winds, coupled with an unusually low 34 percent relative humidity, created the ideal environment for rapid fire expansion. Franklin also spoke on the overwhelming importance of defensible space, the buffer zone of cleared brush between a house and its surrounding landscape. The defensible space law, said Franklin, is 100 feet of cleared area, but people should be encouraged to clear as much combustible vegetation as possible from around their homes. The message was underscored when Franklin indicated strong versus poor clearance techniques on projected photos of post-fire neighborhoods, noting the saved houses and their evident defensible space.

City Fire Captain Pat McElroy next retraced the first moments of the Jesusita Fire, beginning with the first official report of smoke sighted from an on-duty engine company at 1:40 p.m.; he also played recorded 911 calls from residents who spotted the first signs of trouble. The initial dispatch, explained McElroy, was standard for any brush fire: three fire engines and a battalion chief (who, at the time, was McElroy himself) responded and began their investigative processes. Shortly thereafter, McElroy went on, the wildfire began spreading quickly and, by 1:48 p.m., was officially dubbed the Jesusita Fire.

In light of the growing danger, additional resources were ordered including several county and Forest Service fire engines. “We recognized right away that we had a major fire on our hands,” he said. Unified command was also established, which, as McElroy explained, is a body of “many agencies working for a common constituency.” The command immediately began issuing one set of common orders to responding engine crews, reducing duplication of efforts and eliminating the likelihood of omissions.

Mark Schmidt, County Fire Division Chief and unified commander, provided a play-by-play recap of the day’s events, stating that within the first hour of response, 10 engines, one bulldozer, one water tender, one hand crew, and two helicopters were on the scene; including supervisory personnel, there were 64 initial responders. Soon after this first wave of reaction, said Schmidt, the wildfire was declared a “major incident.” It became clear that local resources would not be sufficient to fight the blaze, so, continued Schmidt, the county began ordering out-of-area resources through California Master Mutual Aid with the help of ROSS, the Resource Ordering Status System. By this time, multiple media sources had become engaged in the unfolding event and status updates were becoming available to the public.

By late Tuesday afternoon, Schmidt went on, reverse 911 calls began as well as mandatory evacuations for residents in close proximity to the fire’s origin. By 6:43 p.m. that evening, 50 more brush fire engines had been requested, including more than 200 additional personnel. Firefighters and officials were, at this point, conducting “aggressive structure triage” – determining what buildings could or could not be saved, and establishing a defendable perimeter around targeted structures. As crews assessed and fought the blaze throughout the night, Wednesday morning brought bad news for all involved as, on that day, “the weather really started going south,” said Schmidt: temperatures reached 90 degrees and northwest winds kicked up 45 mph gusts.

At 10 a.m. Wednesday morning, after fighting their way through unforgiving vegetation and terrain, the first hand crews reached the east flank of the fire; at 11 a.m., hand crews arrived at the west flank. By the end of the day, explained Schmidt, 400 personnel were involved in combating the flames and Cal Fire had arrived on the scene to provide assistance. Resources were at their peak on Thursday, May 7, and included 509 fire engines, 109 hand crews, 35 bulldozers, 45 water tenders, and almost two dozen helicopters and fixed winged aircraft. All told, a small army of 4,500 persons were involved in one capacity or another by day’s end.

Cal Fire Chief and Chief Incitement Commander Joe Waterman
Paul Wellman

Next, during the meeting, Cal Fire Chief and Chief Incitement Commander Joe Waterman addressed his agency’s involvement in the efforts, giving a brief overview of Cal Fire’s method of operation. With 10 incident command teams scattered throughout California (five in north part of the state, five in the south), Cal Fire is able to provide equipment, personnel, and resources to any city or county in need, said Waterman. Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Wallace followed and explained that, once the fire entered Montecito jurisdiction when it crossed Gibraltar Avenue and burned through the west fork of Cold Springs Road, his department became the fifth and final member of unified command. By Friday morning, mandatory evacuation orders had been established for northwest Montecito, said Wallace.

Moving down the line of represented agencies, a U.S. Forest Service Chief then explained that the county’s terrain was “not the kindest for boots,” meaning that those firefighters on the ground had a difficult, grueling task in navigating the topography; the landscape, he said, hampered fire line construction and limited access to points of concern. The chief also noted that the retardant dropped from fixed winged aircraft had a hard time reaching the ground as it was frequently blocked by dense and overgrown vegetation. The famous DC-10 aircraft, he went on, made a total of four drops, delivering 48,000 gallons of retardant that covered over three miles of land. The Forest Service chief also paid special notice to the 109 hand crews who worked the Jesusita Fire, explaining that with 20 people per crew, the contingent made up the largest and most important body of personnel – the audience agreed, clapping enthusiastically.

Later on in the meeting, Sheriff Bill Brown addressed law enforcement’s role in incident management, asserting that the Sheriff’s Department acts as a support system for the Fire Department during fire-related emergency situations. Charged with evacuation planning and the evacuations themselves, the law enforcement contingent – which included representatives of 20 outside agencies from 3 different counties – also conducted roving patrols and perimeter maintenance to ensure that evacuees were safely out of harm’s way. Brown noted that, due to the overwhelming necessity for bodies in the field, he considered closing Santa Barbara courts so that all available officers could provide assistance; luckily, he said, that was avoided. At one point, Brown continued, there were 250 law enforcement officers per shift dedicated to the fire which, he said, was the largest number officers dedicated to a single incident he had seen in his career.

Sheriff Brown then went on to commend the effectiveness of the reverse 911 call system, citing the 29 different call sessions that reached over 209,000 residents; he himself received a reverse 911 call during a much deserved cat nap. “It is a great way to augment and supplement getting the message out,” said Brown. All told, evacuation orders included 12,214 parcels and affected 30,500, and evacuation warnings included 11,524 parcels and affected 29,000 people. These numbers brought the total of individuals directly impacted by the fire to almost 60,000, Brown attested. As overwhelming as these numbers seem, said Brown, things could have been a lot worse. “As bad as this fire was, and it was bad,” he said, “we dodged a huge bullet.” Many of the officials echoed this sentiment, citing the remarkable fact that more homes weren’t destroyed or any lives lost.

Throughout the meeting, each agency official did not hesitate to thank his fellow workforce, complimenting all involved for the effective and organized effort. The public was also universally commended for its cooperation and compliance with requests throughout the crisis. Toward the end of the conference, all the unified command representatives took center stage and, with kind words of gratitude from City Fire Chief Andy DiMizio, received a standing ovation from the crowd.

A meeting centered on rebuilding strategies is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Monday, May 18, in the County Administration Building on East Anapamu.

As of 5 p.m. Thursday, statistics of the Jesusita Fire include the following:

8,733 acres burned

95% contained

80 homes destroyed

22 homes damaged

1 commercial property destroyed

30 injuries

$17 million in costs


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