Strike teams and individuals from fire departments throughout Santa Barbara County are helping battle the wildfires raging in Northern and Southern California, and those left behind are preparing for strong offshore winds expected to sweep across the Central Coast, pushing fire danger to a critical level.
With 21 wildfires currently burning in California, agencies throughout the state are pouring assistance into the devastated areas, and four strike teams and a bulldozer from this county are among them, said Mike Eliason, public information officer for Santa Barbara County Fire Department.
Eighty firefighters comprise the strike teams, and another eight individuals have been sent to help out in various other roles.
One strike team, led by a battalion chief from Santa Barbara City Fire Department, is fighting the Atlas fire that’s burned 42,349 acres in Napa and Solano counties.
The team consists of one engine from the City of Santa Barbara, one from Santa Maria, one from Lompoc, one from Montecito and one from Carpinteria/Summerland.
Four firefighters are assigned to each engine, Eliason said.
Four individuals have been assigned to work as safety officers and line officers on the Tubbs fire that’s burned 28,000 acres in Napa County, and another individual is working as a dispatcher on the Wind complex, consisting of the La Porte, Cascade, McCourtney and Lobo fires that have burned a combined 16,982 acres in Butte, Yuba and Nevada counties.
Eliason said fellow Santa Barbara County Fire public information officer Dave Zaniboni is working on the Mendocino Lake complex, which includes the Redwood, Potter and Sulfur fires that have burned a combined 32,000 acres in Mendocino and Lake counties.
Santa Barbara County Fire has also sent a bulldozer to the Northern California fires, although Eliason didn’t know which fire it has been assigned to.
Three strike teams have been sent to the Canyon 2 fire that’s burned 8,000 acres in Orange County.
One mixed team, led by a County Fire battalion chief and a strike team trainee, is made up of an engine from County Fire, two from Santa Barbara city, one from Carpinteria/Summerland and one from Montecito.
A second mixed team, led by a Santa Barbara city battalion chief, consists of two County Fire engines, one Santa Barbara city engine, one Santa Maria engine and one Vandenberg Air Force Base engine.
The third team, led by a County Fire battalion chief and a trainee, is made up of five County Fire engines.
In addition, two individuals are serving as division supervisors on the Canyon 2 fire, Eliason said.
“We’re on drawdown in the county,” he said. “We’re at the minimum (staffing) we can be. But we have mutual aid, so if we have an incident, we’ll be pulling in assistance from San Luis Obispo County and other areas.
“If someone calls 911, they’re going to get an engine,” he added. “If it’s a big event, they’ll get multiple engines.”
Preparing for wind
The National Weather Service has issued a red flag alert for the Central Coast, starting Thursday night and continuing into Saturday with strong offshore winds predicted to raise the wildfire danger to critical levels.
As a result, County Fire started “up-staffing” Wednesday night to be ready if a fire breaks out.
“Any wind event is a concern, and September and October are our hottest months,” Eliason said. “The vegetation has been baking all summer, it’s very dry, and the humidity is very low.”
Mild northerly winds that began Wednesday are expected to increase to 25 mph Thursday and into Friday, with gusts ranging from 35 to 45 mph in the Santa Ynez Mountains and coastal foothills, according to the weather service.
The humidity is expected to drop to 8 to 15 percent Thursday, with little recovery overnight, then decreasing to 6 to 12 percent Friday, forecasters said.
By Saturday, the winds will shift to the northeast, bringing the dangerous Sundowner condition that has driven so many wildfires along the Central Coast.
“Very dry air will remain in place this weekend,” a weather service meteorologist said. “So, there will be the possibility of critical fire weather conditions.”
Eliason said County Fire has added a Type 3 brush truck to the Type 1 engine normally located at Station 13 in Santa Barbara, another brush engine has been stationed in Solvang, and two water tenders are stationed at the Gaviota turn.
Personnel who normally work 12-hour shifts have been placed on 24-hour shifts, including the handcrew stationed at Cachuma Lake, the bulldozer and operator located in Los Alamos and the duty officer stationed in the Sheriff’s Office dispatch center.
“We hope we can weather this and not have any major event,” Eliason said. “We hope the public will help us out — if they see smoke, call 911, and check their vehicles to make sure they are in good working order.
“If they have a malfunctioning catalytic converter, they’re not going to go driving up over San Marcos (Pass),” he added.
“Especially people in the urban fire areas should be prepared with an evacuation plan,” Eliason continued. “They should be ready to go. They should know where to evacuate to and have all their personal items and important papers together.”
He said in the devastating Northern California fires, people were leaving important documents and photographs in safes, but when they returned and opened the safes after their homes had burned, everything was gone.
Residents can go to the County Fire website at sbcfire.com and click on the "Ready! Set! Go!" button for information on evacuation preparations.
“And if they’re asked to go, they should go,” Eliason said. “If they stick around, we have to decide how we’re going to deal with them while we’re dealing with everything else.”