With below-average rainfall and temperatures rising earlier in the spring than in previous seasons, the Santa Barbara County Fire Department and other agencies are gearing up for an early high fire season. At a press conference at County Fire headquarters on Monday afternoon, county fire officials warned the public to be prepared for early fires stretching in the mountains anywhere from Carpinteria in the south to Gaviota in the north.
This year, rainfall has plummeted to only 47 percent compared to the average at this time of year. Last year, rainfall was around 95 percent of the average, and the year before that, rainfall was above average at 125 percent, according to County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig. With little to no more rainfall expected in the coming months, grasses and mountainous plants like chaparral are already drying up, months ahead of previous years.
The month of May marks National Wildfire Awareness Month. But the spring season is no longer the kickoff to fire season, Hartwig said, because the state of California is now in a “year-round fire season, both in terms of staffing and funding.”
“For the fire agencies, we’re spending more time in fire season than out of fire season,” said Chief Fire Marshal Rob Hazard. “So where we used to say our worst part of fire season started in September, now we’re seeing the worst part of the fire season starting earlier. We’re seeing spring start earlier. It’s all part of this climate change reality that we’re in.”
To help combat this early fire season, CalFire gave the county fire department $150,000 to aid the start of the high fire season, which goes toward bringing crews on early and augmenting their response to fires. Normally at this time of year, the department would respond with a low-fire-season response, which typically includes one fire engine. But now that larger fires are starting sooner, Hartwig said the department is responding with five engines. The department now has a Firehawk helicopter, which it will use to knock out wildfires as they’re first beginning to prevent rapid wildfires from spreading.
Besides bringing in additional crews and funding, one key way the department is approaching fire season is through mutual aid agreements, where departments and other entities work alongside each other to bring in special equipment and extra crews where needed.
One of these key groups is the Forest Service in Los Padres National Forest. The biggest wildfire threat they see this time of year and during the summer is from the public, both from private land adjacent to the forest and from public use, such as people being careless with their campfires, Los Padres National Forest Fire Chief Jimmy Harris said.
“In the last several years, fuels are drying out earlier and rains are coming later, so the fire seasons are longer than they’ve ever been, and our period of risk for wildfire is longer,” Harris said.
County Supervisor Gregg Hart, who attended the press conference along with Supervisor Das Williams, called on the public to “be vigilant” in preventing small fires in the first place by alerting their fire department of anything out of the ordinary.
“Wildfire is a constant threat, and the public has a critical role to play in providing protection to our community, in addition to the obvious professional intervention that the fire service can bring. The quicker we can act, the less severe the event will be.”