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With the Central Coast in peak fire season, Montecito Fire Department looks to prepare residents

Montecito Fire Division Chief David Neels urges attendees to create an escape plan in case of emergency.
Montecito Fire Department
Montecito Fire Division Chief David Neels urges attendees to create an escape plan in case of emergency.

It’s high fire season across the Western U.S., and drought conditions are moderate to extreme across California.

Experts say Santa Barbara County has seen seven front country fires this year, ranging from Hollister Ranch to the Carpinteria Foothills. Lower fuel moisture levels and the absence of rainfall increase potential for wildfire activity.

The county is in its second year of sustained drought. Countywide rainfall this year is at 63% of what’s consideredhistorically average.

Santa Barbara County’s chaparral ecosystem, Mediterranean climate, and steep terrain make it a difficult area to suppress wildfires. Downslope winds in the Santa Ynez Mountains known as “sundowner winds” combine with these conditions to pose a serious wildfire threat.

Santa Barbara's unique ecosystem makes it especially susceptible to wildfire activity.
Santa Barbara's unique ecosystem makes it especially susceptible to wildfire activity.

Sundowners are especially dangerous in the summer and fall alongside dry terrain, and concern is even higher this year due to the lack of rainfall.

The Montecito Fire Department held a fire preparedness meeting on July 7 to discuss evacuation strategies and the “Ready! Set! Go!” educational guide.

The Ready! Set! Go! program involves safe-guarding homes, planning escape routes and meeting locations, and evacuating early to a predetermined location.

Montecito Fire Department Supervisor Maeve Juarez listed off ways to “harden your home,” taking measures like clearing debris from rain gutters.

“Get your grandkids, get your kids to get up there on a ladder, clean 'em out, get a handyman, get someone to clean out the rain gutters. Or, you can now buy new screens that you can install on your rain gutters,” she said.

Juarez recommended opting for non-combustible fences over wooden ones, and placing fire resistant tarps over wood piles. She also suggested removing dead weeds and separating vegetation, as rows of vegetation can carry flames right up to a home.

This strategy is known as creating defensible space.

Juarez urged residents to pay attention to red flag warnings, issued when extreme fire behavior will happen within 24 hours. She recommended always keeping a full tank of gas during red flag warnings.

An incident map from Sunday, showing the spread of the Thomas Fire
An incident map from 2017 showing the spread of the Thomas Fire

“We do a really good job of messaging to the community, but make sure you’re listening to the news, paying attention, and looking around when there’s a red flag warning. So when you know you're in a red flag warning, that’s a time to change your behavior,” Juarez said.

During the 2017 Thomas Fire in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, the first 12 or 13 days were under a red flag warning.

Montecito Fire Division Chief David Neels said local landlines often become overused during times of disaster. He suggested assigning an out-of-town relative or friend to communicate with.

Leaving promptly is the best thing one can do in case of an evacuation order, Neels said.

“It's super helpful to the agencies that are responding to the emergency, but also in regards to knowing that you are on your way out early, that's super important for us,” he said.

Neels recommended having an evacuation plan and designated meeting location outside of the fire zone.

Speakers explained the Ready SBC alert system, which delivers local alerts during emergencies like wildfires. Residents can register up to five residences in the system, and the number is (805) 979-2040.

The next test alert of the Ready SBC system will take place on July 21 at 11 a.m.

Ashley Rusch was an intern with KCBX News during the summer of 2022, and the Internal News Director at KCSB-FM, UC Santa Barbara's radio station. During college, Ashley also worked as the Co-Editor-in-Chief of WORD Magazine. She graduated in June 2022 with a B.A. in Communication and minor in Journalism.
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