The South Coast is always on wildfire alert, but because we’ve entered the warmer part of the year — with sundowner winds blowing across unusually dry vegetation — Santa Barbara County’s fire chiefs say now is the time to think about and prepare for the next big blaze. Speaking to public officials, fellow firefighters, and members of the media at an annual briefing over barbecue and bottles of water in Montecito’s Manning Park, the chiefs — along with National Weather Service representatives — talked about what’s normal and what’s different about this year’s fire season.
David Gomberg, a senior forecaster in Oxnard, explained how our notable lack of rain over the last six months will affect wildland fuel growing in the mountains. While we did get a recent spurt of showers, he said, the area is still 30-50 percent below its normal rainfall level due to an extremely dry period between December and February. The recent rain will “green-up” vegetation to some degree, “but it’s not time to relax,” said Gomberg, explaining we’re now in the full swing of sundowner winds — offshore gusts that blow down the mountains to the ocean, heating and drying the air as they descend.
May and June are the most acute sundowner months, Gomberg said, and they spike again in the fall when vegetation is the driest it will be all year. The Jesusita Fire started in May 2009 and the Tea Fire began in November 2008, he noted. The National Weather Service is predicting above normal temperatures in the southwest United States over the summer. Though there will be a weak El Niño climate pattern during the winter, it won’t have much impact on Southern California. Our drier-than-normal winter, Gomberg said, was due to a period of La Niña-related weather.
“From a fire behavior point of view,” said Chief Dan Ardoin with the Vandenberg Air Force Base Fire Department, “it’s not whether we’re going to have fires, it’s what kind of fires we’re going to have when we do get them.” Early in the season, he said, fires tend to rate moderately intense. Later in the season, when the heavy vegetation is more mature, wildland blazes become more powerful.
Though it’s typical for there to be “several fires over 200 acres in the region every year,” said Ardoin, a specific area of concern right now is the area east of Cold Spring Creek on the front side of the mountains: The fuel there is heavy and over-mature — meaning there is more dead than live shrubbery — and it hasn’t burned since the 1964 Coyote Fire. Burton Mesa near Lompoc, Ardoin went on, and Tepusquet Canyon outside of Santa Maria are in similar situations. “Fire is driven more by fuel than weather,” he said.
U.S. Forest Service Fire Chief Mark vonTillow, noting that the South Coast — with its microclimates and rugged terrain — is one of the most complex places in the country to fight fires, said the moisture level of area vegetation currently sits at 75 percent. At this time of year it should be 110 percent or higher, he said. A moisture level of 60 percent is considered critical.
VonTillow drew a round of applause when he remarked on the Forest Service’s decision last October to restore full-service status to the Santa Maria Air Tanker Base, as opposed to the “call when needed” designation the base had for the past few years.
When a fire call goes out within Santa Barbara city limits, Chief Andy DiMizio explained, the S.B. City Fire Department’s immediate response is to send three engines and a single chief officer. If the situation calls for it, an additional five engines can be quickly dispatched, bringing the number of total firefighters on the scene to 47. DiMizio said a mutual aid system is in place among fire districts near and far, meaning resources and personnel are exchanged when needed between area cities, elsewhere in the county, and throughout the state.
Geri Ventura, a coordinator for the Montecito Fire Protection District, said in the South Coast below Camino Cielo there are 23 fire engines divided between five districts. Approximately 200,000 people live in the same area. That means there is one engine for every 8,800 or so residents, explained Ventura. “Initial response can be limited,” she said. “Members of the public often wonder why hundreds of firefighters aren’t in their driveway the second they call. … The chances of a fire engine being in front of your house when there’s a wildfire are pretty slim,” she said.
Ventura said support from outside the county can take hours to arrive, even if a call goes out at the first sign of danger. Mobilizing equipment and personnel, and figuring out the associated logistics, takes time. So to boost local response efficiency, community resources should be better utilized by area fire departments, said Ventura. Graduates of CERT (Community Emergency Response Teams) programs, animal rescue groups, Red Cross members, and radio clubs should be integrated into agency response plans, she argued.
“Get involved with them early and train together,” she said. “Some think they’re more work than they’re worth, but have faith.” Ventura pointed to the significant role MERRAG (Montecito Emergency Reaction and Recovery Group) played in the Tea Fire response, explaining trained volunteers helped to quickly establish a command center for fire crews. “And don’t discard seniors,” Ventura told the group. “They can be the most productive.”
[Go here to see CAL FIRE tips on how to prepare yourself and your home for the next wildfire.]