SB County Fire declares start of high fire season early
High fire season in Santa Barbara County is making its debut a little early this year compared to years past, and fire officials are warning of a more intense summer of fires due to the intensifying drought.
Thursday, the Santa Barbara County Fire Department — in conjunction with all other local fire jurisdictions — declared May 3 as the start date for the 2021 high fire season for all areas of the county.
The 2020/21 rain season yielded 47% of the county’s normal rainfall, which has led to significantly drier fuels. Combined with dry seasonal grasses for this time of year, county fire is reminding the public to be extra vigilant about fire safety this year due to the significant risk for ignition and growth of vegetation fires.
Tom Rolinski, a fire scientist for Southern California Edison, told the News-Press that the county is coming off of a “very dry winter.”
“Our fuel conditions are a lot drier than what it normally should be for this time of year, certainly drier than where we were last year at the same time,” he said. “What that means going into fire season — which normally starts around mid-May but it looks like we’re going to start a little earlier this year than normal — our fuels will be drier than what they normally are for the start. That means we’ll likely see more fire activity and larger fires earlier in the season than we normally see.”
He said SCE’s line of thinking is that there will be more significant fires across the Los Padres National Forest, the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Angeles National Forest.
“That’s a slightly different viewpoint from what’s being produced officially by the land management agencies. They are going for above normal fire potential by July. We are just ramping things up a little earlier and that’s based upon the current state of fuels being drier than normal for this time of year,” Mr. Rolinski said.
He also referenced the United States Drought Monitor intensifying each week, which he said is “not surprising.” The monitor shows Santa Barbara County in moderate to severe drought conditions. Half of the state is currently under extreme drought conditions, up from 38% of the state last week.
Under moderate to severe drought conditions, vegetation growth is stunted, water temperature increases, programs to divert water to protect fish begin and reservoir levels are low and banks are exposed. Under extreme conditions, little pasture remains, federal water is not adequate to meet irrigation contracts, water sanitation becomes a concern, water use restrictions are implemented and water is inadequate for agriculture, wildlife and urban needs.
Gov. Gavin Newsom declared an emergency executive order Wednesday in two northern California counties: Mendocino and Sonoma. The order allows the state to prepare for expected water shortages. In addition, the state Department of Water Resources said this year is the fourth driest year on record statewide, particularly up north.
“The world that existed a century or so ago no longer persists and exists today,” Gov. Newsom said Wednesday. “The hots are getting hotter (and) the dries are getting drier.”
With the drought and rapidly approaching high fire season, SCE is accelerating work in communities that were frequently impacted by public safety power shut offs over the past two years. The company hopes to complete more grid hardening work and improve operations to reduce the number of customers impacted by Public Safety Power Shutoff events.
According to Ben Gallagher, SCE spokesperson, there were zero PSPS events in Santa Barbara County in 2020. Nevertheless, the electric company hopes to prepare community members if one does occur in 2021.
Mr. Rolinski reminded residents of Santa Barbara County that it’s not just high winds that must occur for a PSPS event.
“In the Santa Barbara area, I know folks are familiar with the sundowner winds,” he said. “While it’s windy there a lot, we have to have the fuel conditions in place as well … We have a number of combinations that have to coincide — not only stronger winds, but fuels in a condition in which they’re receptive to fire, and not only that, but are willing to support significant fire activity. All of that has to come together.”
The fire scientist added, “Out of the whole service territory, the amount of PSPS events that happen in Santa Barbara County is a pretty small number in comparison to the rest of our service territory.”
That being said, it’s too early to predict how many of these events will occur this season because they’re “short-fused,” Mr. Rolinski said. But, SCE has a forecast it produces in house and its own weather modeling that generates a five- to seven-day forecast to see these types of events materializing.
Four to seven days ahead, SCE staff prepares for the PSPS event; three days ahead, initial notifications about possible shut offs are sent to local and tribal governments, emergency officials, first responders, hospitals and other critical infrastructure and service providers; two days out, SCE sends initial notifications to customers and updates to other agencies; one day out, updated notifications are sent along with any timing information; and one to four hours before the PSPS event, notifications are sent that the power will be shut off.
Easy things residents in high fire areas can do to prepare for the season, according to Mr. Rolinski, include: clearing brush around homes; having an evacuation plan mapped out for all family members; filling up gas tanks; and keeping cell phones and other devices charged, among many others. On top of that, customers can monitor sce.com/psps for updates on shut offs.
SCE’s executive vice president, Steven Powell, sent out a letter to customers earlier this week ahead of high fire season, and said of the PSPS events, “We know these outages are painful, especially during a pandemic when many of you are working and learning from home. We use PSPS as a last resort during extreme weather conditions so a spark from our equipment does not start a catastrophic wildfire and to keep communities safe.”
He added that the company is installing insulated wires and sectionalizing devices in high fire risk areas; expanding customer care programs like rebates for backup batteries and portable generators; and improving customer notifications. The company believes these efforts will reduce the customer outage time caused by PSPS in 2021 by more than 35%.
“Nothing is more important to us than the safety of the communities,” Mr. Powell wrote. “Along with the 13,000 employees of SCE, you have our commitment to reduce the impact of PSPS outages.”
See Saturday’s News-Press for information about the county’s water supply and drought preparation.