Residents of Goleta and other parts of Santa Barbara County woke up Friday to smoky air, a reminder of the region’s proximity to several ongoing blazes: the Getty Fire near Los Angeles, the Sobrante Fire near Riverside, and the Easy Fire near Thousand Oaks to name a few.
The closest one to the county as of Friday was the Maria Fire raging in Ventura County, which prompted the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department and Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District to issue an air quality alert.
With the heightened frequencies of California fires in mind, two professors in the UCSB Geography Department, Dar Roberts and Max Moritz, weighed in about the blazes.
Dr. Roberts’ research interests include remote sensing of vegetation, fire danger assessment, and urban and natural cover. He’s also the principal investigator of the Southern California Wildfire Hazard Center. Dr. Moritz is a professor in UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. His areas of expertise includes fire history and patterns.
Dr. Moritz said a common misconception is that the problem of forest and fuel management and the problem of wildland-urban interface fires are one and the same. But the strategies for one problem do not necessarily work for the other.
Dr. Roberts explained how fire management teams aim to control the extent and distribution of fuels, whether that be debris or invasive grasses. One strategy is fire breaks, areas where vegetation is removed to slow down a fire’s progress and serve as roads for firefighters. Another technique involves conducting prescribed burns to reduce the accumulation of fuel, which could otherwise feed flames.
Though they prove effective in the forest, prescribed burns and fire breaks are not as effective in minimizing blazes in the wildland-urban interface.
“It’s a huge part of why we’re actually not making much progress toward solving that wildland-urban interface problem because that’s a problem of where and how we’ve built our communities,” said Dr. Moritz.
A closer look at the layout of communities sheds light on the outbreak and spread of fires, and Dr. Moritz believes that fire-conscious city planning can effectively address wildland-urban interface fires.
“You can lay out a community in a way that’s much safer: buffered, easier to evacuate, easier to defend,” said Dr. Mortiz. “And that’s urban planning and design.”
Currently in Santa Barbara, for example, several neighborhoods have houses whose backyards are right next to flammable landscape. Instead of building houses by a perimeter road, city planners can use perimeter zones for irrigated parks or community gardens. These facilities, in addition to providing a community space for nearby residents, will insulate a community from the wildlands were a fire could break out.
“All those ideas are in people’s heads but they’re not codified into a consistent set of best practices or land use and urban planning guidelines that apply from county to county and city to city,” said Dr. Moritz.
Homeowners can take measures to protect their properties in the face of flames, such as installing double-paned glass.
“Given sufficient time, that window will melt, but fires often go through pretty fast, and so it doesn’t take that much to prevent the house from blowing up from the inside,” said Dr. Roberts.
Encouraging orchards that are irrigated and green may also prove effective.
“In Santa Barbara, the best thing we could do is preserve our orchards because in any place we have an orchard it actually acts as a defensible barrier against fire spread,” said Dr. Roberts.
Even with precautionary measures, the time may come to evacuate. Some folks, however, don’t get out in time.
“That’s a big part of what we saw up north this year. Lots of people leaving too late and either dying in their cars or having to get out of their cars and run,” said Dr. Moritz.
Dr. Roberts said minimizing damage on communities plays a key role.
“Given that there’s going to be big fires, and there’s likely going to be no way to prevent them from happening, what we need to do is figure out ways to minimize damage,” said Dr. Roberts. “For us it’s fires, but for other places it’s floods, and other places it’s hurricanes, and then other places it’s sea level rise. There’s all these things that we’re going to have to be pretty adept on our feet and adapt to.”