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Life on California's beautiful Central Coast

Summer arrives – may it not be full of fire

Walking into the sunset at Hendry's, May 27. Photo credit: Peter Conover

Walking into the fire-altered sunset at Hendry’s, May 27.

Driving around the Santa Ynez Valley this weekend, it was like a tinder box outside. The grass is too dry, we didn’t get enough rain. The days have been perfectly warm so far, but the winds are gusting in the afternoons and evenings. Soon it will be hot and getting hotter. In other words, it is fire season. A few hours after this had been discussed, there was a huge fire burning near the Santa Ynez River.

Growing up in the boonies, you figured out that summer fires were a part of Western life pretty quick. We always took a pragmatic approach. Is it far away from people and structures? Don’t worry, it will eventually get put out. Is it heading our way with variable weather conditions? OK, time to be calm and pack up the car. For us the closest scare that we ever got was the Marre Fire in 1993. That was the time that a firetruck drove up to our house at about 8 p.m. The firemen got out and knocked on the door. “Is it OK if we sleep in the truck in your driveway?” they asked. “Of course, we said, but should we be here if you are?”

The answer was heartening: “You can stay,” they told us. “We figured we’d stay here because if the wind shifts and it comes this way, yours is the only house we can save. We’ll come tell you if it’s time to get out.” The weather cooperated and everything ended up being OK. There are some advantages, you see, to building in a defensible valley pocket instead of on the top of a steep hill, where a wildfire could run up the slope and overtake you so fast you wouldn’t even see it coming.

Working at Edhat and leading our coverage efforts of the Jesusita (2009) and Tea Fire (2008), I learned some things about the absolute hysteria that some Californians attach to wildfire. Jesusita and Tea merited it – they were close to the urban periphery in the Santa Barbara front country and hundreds of homes were burned. One of my high school friends, Lance Hoffman, and his wife Carla were badly burned trying to escape from their home during the Tea Fire. I saw Lance recently downtown and he happily reported that they are both fully recovered, though forever affected.

If you were around here during the Painted Cave Fire in 1990, then you know that any fire that you can see from downtown is a scary thing. When those sundowner winds rush down the mountains, they cannot be controlled, pushing flames forward into fresh fuel at speeds as fast as cars. That’s how Painted Cave burnt all the way to Highway 101, even jumping it to do more damage. I’ll never forget driving into Santa Barbara for the first time after Highway 154 was reopened after Painted Cave. It looked like we had traveled to the surface of the moon.

Monday night’s White Fire was apparently started by a camper who decided to discard live coals carelessly near the White Rock Day use area. (Credit: Ray Ford in the SB Independent.) At the end of a camping-friendly Memorial Day weekend, the campgrounds were packed – 4000 people in the Santa Ynez Recreation Area were urgently sent home. This merits hysteria over stupidity. If you think that throwing hot coals out of a contained environment anytime of year in Southern California is a good idea, you are a giant idiot.

The great news is that the combined response teams that train all year for incidents like this – including the US Forest Service Fire and Aviation Response brigades, Santa Barbara County Fire Department, localized neighborhood response volunteers like the San Marcos Volunteer Fire Department, and interagency responders from around the county – are the epitome of prepared professionals. They plan a strategic attack, summon as many engines and airplanes and necessary, survey the resources and structures that could be threatened,obsessively monitor the weather reports, and always put human lives and safety first. When fire fighting gets really scary is when there are a half dozen fires around the state at the same time, and resources are slim.

I’m trying to figure out how to close this post without sounding like Smokey the Bear. Because bottom line – it’s true. Only you can prevent forest fires. So if you decide to clear brush or drive a tractor or have a bonfire or barbecue around these parts this summer, please be careful. It’s the idiot factor behind so many wildfires’ origins that should scare us most of all.

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