Officials warn public of wildfire risk
High fire season is here, and it’s early this year.
A plethora of officials gathered at Santa Barbara County Fire Department headquarters at noon Monday to warn the public about what may be a challenging season for fire departments.
Santa Barbara County currently has 47% of its normal rainfall. At this time last year, the county had 90-95% of its expected rainfall.
“The fuel (dry vegetation) that you see on the hillsides, and at this time already, about two months ahead of schedule, is able to carry fire,” Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Mark A. Hartwig said during a press conference. “So it’s a little bit early for us.
“And we’re here to tell you: We’re ready, and we want you to be ready.”
Fire officials measure the moisture in vegetation and look at the rainfall data to determine when the county reaches high risk.
North County looks “decent,” according to Chief Hartwig. He notices drier conditions in southern and eastern areas of the county.
Although a wildfire can break out anytime, the drier months are the most dangerous.
“We call it high fire season today, but it’s a little bit of a fire season kickoff. And in fact, the state of California really is going to a year-round fire season in both staffing and funding,” he said.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a wildfire prevention bill April 13, supplying $536 million to fire departments ahead of fire season. Gov. Newsom plans to bring the total to $1 billion when the state finalizes its budget.
“This year is the first year that I’m aware of that they did augmentation funding at the beginning of the year,” Chief Hartwig told the News-Press.
Funding usually comes at the end of fire season, and although the state has added “a little bit of extra money” the past three years, this year’s rollout is much more convenient.
County Fire will be using the extra funds to send out more crews and respond to incidents aggressively.
“Normally during normal fire season or low fire season, we’ll just send a fire engine with a chief officer. Now we’re sending five fire engines with our local partners, and air and heavy. So we’ll spend every last penny,” he said.
The department has received approximately $150,000 from the state so far, he estimated, but he plans to receive more.
Representatives from other fire departments in the county, Supervisors Gregg Hart and Das Williams, Sheriff Bill Brown, Los Padres National Forest officials and more were present to share their concerns.
“One of those things we’re seeing with our changing environment during the last several years, fuels are drying out earlier and rains are coming later, so the high fire season is longer than it has ever been,” Los Padres National Forest Fire Chief Jim Harris said.
The large outpours of rain followed by dry conditions this year has made conditions worse. Ideally, rain will fall in smaller volumes but more frequently.
His colleague Michael Scott, a battalion chief, agreed and warned people to be cognizant of high-risk conditions.
“We’ve been in a yearlong fire season, and the reality is we’re nowhere near getting out of it,” he said.
Although lightning can start fires, almost all the wildfires seem to come from human error.
“Our biggest threat for wildfire is public and human starts. All of our ignition sources come from public use,” Chief Harris said.
He encourages community members to call law enforcement when they see high-risk behavior, such as unauthorized burns.
Even a loose car chain dragging along the ground can spark a wildfire.
The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office helps enforce safe practices and assist with evacuation should a wildfire occur.
The rules don’t change when high fire season begins, Sheriff Bill Brown said, but fire departments and deputies are more likely to look for violations when risk is high.
“Unfortunately, we have a year-round fire season now. And so really, it’s incumbent upon all of us to be careful throughout the year,” he said.
His main advice is to clear brush around the home.
He also suggested getting a fireproof gun safe for important documents and other items that residents want safe in case of a fire.
“This is the natural disaster that can strike and has struck so many times. You need to be prepared for it mentally as well as physically as well as having all of the community resources like you’ve seen here today,” Sheriff Brown said.
Mutual aid was lauded during the press conference. Many officials expressed confidence in the systems in place.
“Wildland fires are going to burn. That’s not even a question. So how do we handle them? We do that through collaboration,” Greg Fish, Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Association president, said.
“So there’s eight local and federal fire agencies within our county that have a long history of tackling challenges together,” he said. “We train and plan and we respond together regularly, and we are ready for the challenges that are going to be presented to us this year.”
For wildfire preparedness tips, go to readyforwildfire.org.