Cuyama Valley grass fire along Highway 166 on June 21, 2023. | Credit: SBC Fire Department

The Fourth of July is traditionally foggy and overcast along coastal Santa Barbara, but this year, the weekend leading up to the Tuesday holiday promises to be warmer than the summer so far. The valleys and other inland areas have already been heating up, to the point where several fires have broken out, including three in the Cuyama Valley in the past three weeks.

As described in the National Weather Service forecast, the hotter air in the valleys is rising and pulling in the cooler ocean air — and the accompanying low clouds known as the “marine layer.” Lying atop the ocean air is an inversion layer, a relatively motionless blanket that was about 2,000 feet deep on Thursday. As a result, the Santa Barbara County coast is staying relatively cool as the sun bores in — temps might rise into the 80s — but interior areas could grow hotter by 6-12 degrees, or into the 90s. Tuesday’s forecast is both foggy and sunny.

The three fires in Cuyama were all grass fires, including one that started the day the new Fire Station 27 was inaugurated. One was caused by a mower, another by a structure fire, and the third behind the old Burger Barn was of unknown cause — but all were kept to below 10 acres, Santa Barbara County Fire Captain Scott Safechuck said. With the plentiful rainfall this winter, the grass reaches overhead in some places, he said, and conditions are growing for quick, flashy fires when the heat and wind are just right.

“With the sun beating on it, the moisture dries right out of a plant, making it susceptible to burning,” Safechuck said. Later in the season is when thick chaparral or chamise gets dry. “They retain moisture longer because they’re heavier. But in the fall, when the sundowners and hot dry temperatures develop, they’ll start to dry out, too.”

For the Fourth, the Santa Barbara County Fire Department and other agencies are asking residents to refrain from shooting off their own fireworks and to instead attend public displays. Even “safe and sane” fireworks are illegal in the county’s unincorporated areas, not only for their potential to set off a fire, but they can cause burns, eye injuries, and even fatal accidents. “Safe and sane” fireworks are also illegal in the cities of Santa Barbara, Goleta, Carpinteria, Buellton, and Solvang, but are allowed in Santa Maria, Lompoc, and Guadalupe.

Regarding the frequent grass fires, Safechuck said there was good reason not to let them just burn themselves out; whatever conditions were ripe for the fire — heat and wind — are the same conditions that can cause a fire to get out of control. When the fire agencies do a controlled burn or pile burn, they pick a calm day but also one when air quality won’t be too adversely affected by a fire.

Controlled burns by private agencies are trickier, because if they get out of control, lawsuits are likely. The State of California recently announced a new liability fund to protect against losses “in the rare instance that a prescribed or cultural burn escapes control,” a press release from CalFire stated. Fashioned in a bill by State Senator Bill Dodd, $20 million was allocated to the Prescribed Fire Liability Claims Fund Pilot, and it would cover each incident up to $2 million as long as a qualified burn boss or cultural practitioner had planned and implemented the fire.

“The liability insurance is a game changer for those types of efforts,” said Rob Hazard, who is fire marshal for Santa Barbara County Fire. About 1,000 acres are burned in prescribed burns each year by the county, he said, and the Range Improvement Association does about 500 acres to improve forage for livestock. Burns conducted by the county are covered under a CalFire program that already has a programmatic environmental review. For places like the Nature Conservancy, and the Dangermond or Sedgwick preserves, or Chumash “good fire” burns, the liability coverage will be invaluable, said Hazard. “In all of those private prescribed fire projects, County Fire provides resources on standby to suppress any escapes should they occur,” he assured.

[Update: Jun. 30, 2023, 5:30 p.m.] Saturday is likely to be the hottest day and night of the weekend, especially in the Cuyama Valley in the northern part of Santa Barbara County. A heat advisory is in place for the area, which means stay in the shade, drink water, and be sure not to leave pets in the car. The heat is expected to increase into the low 100s, and the night air will only cool into the 70s and 80s.

The most recent weather report expects clouds to remain along the coast, in fact, Santa Barbara’s municipal airport may be socked in. As well, clouds are expected to build along coastal mountains on Sunday, with winds bringing in moisture from the ocean. “Precipitable water,” aka rain, is possible.

Monday should be cooler, including inland, but temps will still be above normal.


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