Over the past two weeks, 147 firefighters from across Santa Barbara County — which currently suffers no significant fires — have gone north to battle California’s 24 active wildfires and fire complexes. A number of the infernos have merged from more than 600 separate fires, concentrated between Monterey and Mendocino counties and east into the northern Sierras. They’ve burned over 1.5 million acres.
At present, 59 personnel from the Santa Barbara County Fire Department and 88 personnel from local fire departments across the county are providing support where it’s most needed. Those figures approach what’s called “drawdown” — the maximum numbers of firefighters local fire departments will send out-of-county at a time. Drawdown limits ensure home stations remain sufficiently staffed, but reaching those limits still puts stress on firefighters. Evan Scott is an acting battalion chief at the Santa Maria Fire Department, which has dispatched 25 percent of its firefighting staff. “We’re all pretty much in the same boat,” he said of the fire departments in the county. “We’re really stretching our guys thin.”
This holds especially true on the Northern California frontlines. Many of Santa Barbara’s firefighters are on the LNU Lightning Complex fire in Napa/Sonoma and the SCU Lightning Complex in the Santa Clara County area, each of which has surpassed 350,000 acres. “The word we got back from our crews was, ‘There’s so much fire, not enough fire crews,’” said Santa Barbara City Fire Chief Eric Nickel.
Most fire crews work in alternating 24-hour shifts for up to 14 days, but the severity of the current blazes has prompted the state to request that some crews stay an additional seven days. County Fire and the fire departments of Santa Barbara and Santa Maria expect to swap in fresh crews to provide relief — a process they may have to repeat. Said Nickel, “It wouldn’t surprise me if we had engines out with different crews for the next four weeks.”
Mike Eliason, public information officer for County Fire, attributed current fire conditions to climate change: “Global warming and years of drought have created dangerous fire conditions that have not been seen before. Firefighters with decades of experience are in awe at how ferocious these fires have become.”
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