What the Future Holds in Extreme Fire Weather

Santa Barbara County and UCSB Host Climate, Vegetation, Resilience Talks

The mechanism of sundowner winds, from Prof. Leila Carvalho’s talk

Climate change is causing higher temperatures and lower humidity in coastal areas like Santa Barbara — a deadly combination that increases the risk of wildfire. Last week, the county held a five-member public panel to discuss fire weather hazards and ways for the community to become more resilient. The free meeting, moderated by University of Santa Barbara geography professor Charles Jones, was held in the County Office of Emergency Management on October 25 and attended by 50 county residents.

Leila Carvalho, a UCSB professor of meteorology and climatology, told attendees that temperature and humidity trends are getting worse, so wildfires will become even more prevalent than they already are in our community. As a result, weather research is essential so that fire alerts and weather forecasts remain as accurate as possible in the future. She and her research team will conduct a field campaign to collect more climate data between April 1-May 15 by placing instruments and towers throughout the community — a feat supported by Santa Barbara fire departments and the National Weather Service, among others. Accurate measurements help National Weather Service meteorologist Mark Jackson and his team issue Red Flag Warnings to the public and anticipate the movement of active wildfires for firefighters. “We can’t go door to door and evacuate people. We aren’t the boots on the ground. So, it’s important for them to have that information so that they can take protective actions,” Jackson explained.

Santa Barbara County Fire Battalion Chief Rob Hazard added that a fire is predicted by an area’s three factors: weather, fuel (vegetation), and topography. Although the fire department can’t do anything about weather or landscape, they can help control vegetation, which changes throughout the seasons. During periods of rain, “Our mountains look like Ireland, and we don’t have fires,” he explained. However, “the season moves on … our fuels dry out, they become flammable, and we have this cycle where we engage in massive amounts of defensible space work and homeowners up in the hills are weed whacking and trying to become more safe.”

Because of the dynamic nature of fires, “there are still a lot of unknowns that can occur” said panelist Nick Elmquist, wildland fire specialist with the Montecito Fire Protection District. In preparation, he argued, everyone should “implement as many mitigation measures as possible while we have the time to do so.”

“Every place has its own unique set of vulnerabilities, ours happens to be wildfire,” stated 1st District Supervisor Das Williams toward the end of the meeting. “I don’t think anybody can ever tell you that it’s not going to happen again— however, what we should be able to tell you is that we will learn from the lessons and do better each time.”

To watch the full discussion, click here.

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