Heavy equipment and firefighters worked to put out a mulch fire at Tajiguas Landfill earlier this month. | Credit: Mike Eliason/S.B. County Fire Dept.

Every season has been fire season in Santa Barbara County for a long time now, but this year, “high fire season” came earlier than usual, precipitated by the two fires that happened this past month, the Glen and La Patera incidents. Both were put out with significant help from a new firefighting helicopter just secured by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. “We were a little startled by those,” conceded county Fire Chief Mark Hartwig. 

Memorial Day marks the arrival of flocks of people roaming Santa Barbara’s backcountry, and Los Padres Fire Chief James Harris noted that 95 percent of the fires started in the Los Padres are started by humans. Lightning and natural causes are rarely involved. Temperatures have been slightly cooler than usual, but sundowner winds have been more intense and frequent. And the moisture level of the county’s chaparral is considerably drier than usual. Historically at this time of year, the live fuel moisture level is 96 percent. Today, it’s 81 percent. “No, we don’t make the cut for the hottest, driest in the history of the world,” Hartwig said. “Northern California does, but we’re dry.” 

The high fire season declaration means that local fire commanders will now be throwing more resources at a fire. “Instead of just one engine, we’ll now send three, a dozer, a hand crew, and a copter,” Hartwig explained. As of June, he added, local fire agencies will be enforcing longstanding laws requiring homeowners to clear defensible space from around their dwelling units from five to 100 feet. “First we’ll send a notice,” Hartwig said. “Then another. After that, we’ll just send a crew out to clear it out and do it ourselves.” There’ll be no fine, but the homeowner will get a bill. “Typically, those bills run from $5,000 to $10,000,” Hartwig said.

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