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Wildfire, Escape Rooms, and Pie

A Santa Barbara Thanksgiving

Photo: courtesyMembers of the Eastern Goleta Valley development team for the Community Wildfire Protection Plan

I knew too much about the fire when I looked out my window and saw flames above us on the mountain near Painted Cave. As one of two foothill neighborhood representatives on the team developing a Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP), I’d seen the modeling for this fire. Our neighborhood lacked enough egress back in 1990 during the Paint Fire. Since then, another 30 homes have been built but no new roads out. Not wanting to be in the way if it got crowded getting out or distract the firefighters, I quickly grabbed an overnight bag and left my home in minutes.

From 10 miles away, I watched as the fire came down the hill to my street. Just a half hour before, I’d been ready to whip together pumpkin, eggs, and spices, about to make a pumpkin pie that Monday for Thanksgiving, because it tastes better when it’s been chilled. I’d planned around Edison’s power outage announced for Tuesday that could last more than a day, an outage plan based on high fire risk — low humidity and high winds.

As I looked to San Marcos Pass, I could recognize exactly where the orange flames danced in the dark sky. Years ago I had scanned all my pre-digital photos and important papers, and I tried not to think about all the memories I left in my house without time to say goodbye.

Mostly I had confidence that we have the strongest team imaginable ready for this wildfire. Our county has an incredible emergency operations center, and we have developed significant experience with disasters. Our firefighters have prepared for this exact fire. They know the terrain, they know the fire behavior, they know the community assets to protect, and they know when to protect structures and when their lives are at risk and they have to make choices.

Many in the Eastern Goleta Valley were ready, too. For the past three years, members of Santa Barbara County Fire and residents of the San Marcos Foothills have sat down together to map out a plan in the event a fire were to break out near Painted Cave and come down the mountain through the urban wildland interface. County Fire knew this was the one area of the front country that hadn’t burned in 30 years, and we were due.

Our community wildfire plan was approved recently by the Board of Supervisors, which will allow County Fire to apply for grants to fund projects to prevent and mitigate wildfire. The plan area stretches across 29 square miles; it includes the mountain communities along State Highway 154 from Paradise Road over the ridge to Painted Cave on the east and Twinridge on the west, along with the San Marcos foothills neighborhoods west of 154 and east of Patterson. Already, strategic firebreaks in our area have been valuable — Painted Cave credits theirs, and helicopter water drops, with helping to save the community. We are especially proud that our plan balances wildfire hazard mitigation strategies with sustainable ecological management.

On Monday night, rain was already predicted in two days. As a school board member, I knew the schools were closed and also that we had families in the evacuation area. Floods were possible, and we’ve had flooding at some of our schools in the past that abut nearby creeks. I checked in with district administrators.

On Tuesday morning, I awoke groggily in an unfamiliar room to a strong smell of smoke and thought, “Is there a fire?! Oh yeah, my neighborhood is on fire, and I guess I can smell it all the way here.” Then I checked the news and was relieved to learn that no structures had been burned.

That afternoon my college-age kids and I decided to try a new escape room on Santa Barbara’s Eastside. It was a good indoor activity given the poor air quality. The irony was poignant, however, as we had actually escaped our home the prior night, and the firefighters were still hoping to contain the fire before large gusts of wind came.

By Wednesday morning we learned we could return home. Our Thanksgiving pie tasted the best ever, mostly because of the deep gratitude to the extraordinary team of firefighters and emergency personnel who held the fire at the end of our block and at the ends of all the blocks in our neighborhood.

I’m looking forward to debriefing with the CWPP development team. Ongoing concerns include environmental impacts, planning issues in the urban wildland interface, emergency communications, climate change, and fiscal constraints.

As a member of the CWPP, I’ve heard about the complex skills and planning that are required to effectively save lives and protect structures during a wildfire. It’s strategic and requires a lot of quick thinking and hard labor. With a wildfire that moved so quickly threatening thousands of our homes, it really feels like a Santa Barbara holiday miracle.

For  more information about the CWPP development team and process, and the final plan, please go here.

Susan Epstein is a 15-year member of the Goleta School Board and a member of the Eastern Goleta Valley Community Wildfire Protection Plan development team.

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