Roughly 40 firefighters throughout Santa Barbara County have been assigned to Northern California to help fight spreading wildfires near Lake Tahoe.
Three major wildfires have taken hold and covered tens of thousands of acres, destroying several homes in their paths.
The Beckwourth Complex is the largest wildfire now in Northern California and the largest in the state so far this year. As of Monday, it had burned nearly 90,000 acres, and firefighters had reached 23% containment.
Santa Barbara City Fire Chief Chris Mailes told the News-Press the call came in Sunday for mutual aid for the Beckwourth fire, and as per usual, the department committed to a total of 16 days.
“As all of this information has come out about this summer, we are expecting another very intense fire season,” the chief said Monday. “Our fuel moistures, how dry the conditions are, are a couple of months ahead, so we really are looking at September/October fuel moistures right now in the middle of July. So, of course, that coupled with high temperatures and low relative humidities means it’s ripe for fires all over the state.”
Six firefighters from the city department were assigned up north. Of the approximately 40 firefighters in total, 20 are from Santa Barbara County Fire, and the rest are spread out among the other local jurisdictions. Santa Barbara City Fire sent one brush engine, a strike team leader and a trainee, Chief Mailes said, along with more direct firefighters.
There are a total of five engine strike teams from Santa Barbara County now in the region.
Chief Mailes referenced the River Fire, a massive blaze burning in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Mariposa and Madera Counties. In just a few hours on Sunday, the fire grew from about 10 acres to roughly 2,500, and nearly doubled in size to 4,000 acres by Monday morning. One of Santa Barbara County Fire’s hand crews is now there at the River Fire, but only 5% containment was reported.
The pace of this fire exceeded the pace of last year’s Creek Fire, which burned nearly 380,000 acres in September.
“That’s the kind of fire behavior that we are expecting now,” Chief Mailes said. “The fire behavior has changed greatly over the last few years — it’s become more intense. We’ve had to adjust our levels of engagement, and our safety has never been more important.
“Even veteran firefighters are saying they haven’t seen these kinds of fire conditions before.”
Santa Barbara County has seen multiple vegetation fires this season thus far, the most recent being the Gifford Fire off State Route 166 east of Santa Maria on Sunday evening. Forward progress halted around 2 a.m. Monday morning, and no structures were threatened.
However, fire officials are reminding residents all over the county to have a plan, and be ready for evacuations when — not if — fires come.
“The plan does not commence when smoke is on the horizon,” Chief Mailes said. “The plan commences well before that.”
He added that it’s important for residents to be aware of what kind of day it is each morning — if it’s warm, foggy, windy or humid — along with paying attention to the red flag warnings.
Furthermore, the chief said to remember that the city is in good hands with the local firefighting system.
“We have a really elaborate mutual aid system that’s the envy of the entire world. California has really perfected the mutual aid system, and it’s based on getting as many resources to an incident as needed without completely depleting one area as fires get bigger ” Chief Mailes said.
He credited the local community, too, who he said is “always engaged” and “can be self-sufficient.”
The chief added that the Santa Barbara community is “really good” at keeping up with the local fire departments on how to stay safe.
“It’s an orchestrated effort to keep everybody safe and mitigate fires,” he said about jurisdictions working together to prevent fires from spreading. “A fire doesn’t care that it’s in the city of Santa Barbara.”