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California Wildfires Have Been Less Deadly in Recent Years. Residents Told They Can Help Keep It That Way.

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California Wildfires

Santa Barbara County Fire Department's Firehawk making a water drop. It can hold 1,000 gallons per trip. (Photo Courtesy of Mike Eliason/ Santa Barbara County Fire Dept.)

Of the top 20 deadliest California wildfires, seven occurred between 2017 and 2020. None occurred between 2021 and 2023 — even as four of top 20 largest fires by acreage occurred during that latter time period.

According to Santa Barbara County Fire Captain Safechuck, a major reason for the reduced death tolls over the past three years is that wildfires have stayed away from urban areas. But hoping that fires will continue to burn away from population centers is not a strategy Safechuck and his colleagues would like to rely on.

“We are constantly trying to push out information on how people in the community can stay safe,” said Safechuck, a 23-year veteran of the department. “They need to be paying attention prior to a fire happening, particularly when the conditions are right for a fast-moving fire, and have an action plan including for when kids are at school, if some family members are not ambulatory, if someone’s out of town, or other circumstances.”

Trying to instill residents in Santa Barbara with a sense of personal responsibility when it comes to wildfire safety is a key firefighting tactic of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department Fire, even as they have increased their firefighting capabilities through new technology and equipment. Still, it’s not possible for any firefighting department to immediately respond to all areas under attack during a large-scale event.

“Most people believe there is going to be a fire engine at their house during a wildfire. Eventually, that will be the case, but it takes time for us to build that system. We have to use our mutual aid system to get resources from the state. It might take days. Our crew will work as hard as they can to save the community, but it just takes time,” Safechuck said.

Santa Barbara County Fire Captain Scott Safechuck douses the western edge of a vegetation fire early Friday morning, June 27, 2014, on UC Santa Barbara’s Coal Oil Point Reserve. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

Safechuck also stressed the realities of being in the danger zone, further reinforcing the importance of creating an action plan ahead of a fire event.

“It’s hard for people to imagine what it is like in that (wildfire) environment. People think they’ll defend their homes with a garden hose… but it’s so hot, every breath you take is very heated, your eyes water, and you start to vomit; it’s very hard for trained professionals to operate in that environment, so compare that to someone who has not been trained, doesn’t have the right gear on, and has a limited water supply,” he said. “It’s very dangerous for them.”

Ultimately, the goals of wildfire preparations for residents are two-fold: both to create a defensible space around houses and to be able to evacuate safely if a wildfire is threatening. Both steps can play a significant role in helping local firefighters do their jobs.

“The sooner people evacuate, the roads become more freed up for firefighting vehicles. If people don’t take it (evacuation orders) seriously, they can become trapped in there, and it makes it harder for us to operate to attack the fire. If they become trapped, our priorities change. Life safety is a priority for us but it takes away from efforts of putting out the fire. If you don’t feel safe, or you’re not sure, evacuate as long as you have a route out of there,” he said.

A central aspect of the department’s public outreach strategy is the Ready, Set, Go Action Plan developed in collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service, CalFire, and several other Southern California fire departments. Ready. Set, Go is a 10-page booklet that educates residents on how to prepare for wildfires so that they have the best chance of defending their homes and saving their own lives through proactive decision-making.  

Direct Relief helped purchase a Firehawk aircraft capable of 1,000-gallon hauls for Santa Barbara County. (Lara Cooper/Direct Relief)

Some of the tactics include how to create a defensible space around a house, how to build a more fire-resistant house, how to prepare a house when it’s threatened by fire (for example, by closing exterior vents), an action plan guide, what to include in a to-go kit, and a checklist for what to do as a fire approaches.

Firehawks, AI, and more

In addition to a focus on public outreach, the Santa Barbara County Fire Department has been bolstered in recent years by advanced warning technology and aerial support. There are now almost a dozen remote weather stations placed around the county, including nine permanent units and two portable ones. Additionally, the county has one AI camera system, constantly scanning high-risk areas for smoke. Santa Barbara is also part of a statewide camera system that helps identify brewing wildfires.

Once a wildfire begins, the county can utilize its Firehawk helicopter, a converted U.S. Air National Guard MH-60 Pave Hawk optimized for firefighting with an external water tank, rescue hoist, improved avionics and the ability to travel about 30% faster than the department’s other aircraft, allowing it to get back to the fire area more quickly. The county’s Firehawk helicopter was previously used during two combat tours in Afghanistan. Purchased in 2019, with support from Direct Relief totaling over $1.1 million, the Firehawk has the ability to drop about 1,000 gallons of water, which is more than three times the capacity of a Huey, a smaller and older helicopter which is also part of the county’s firefighting arsenal.

Since 2022, the helicopter has dropped about 182,700 gallons of water on 37 wildfires. Last year, the Firehawk, which is often the first responder on the scene of fire and medical emergencies, accounted for almost 90% of all water dropped by Santa Barbara County Fire Department’s Air Support Unit. It has also been involved with five rescues on the Channel Islands, seven hoist rescues, and five medical evacuations.

But even with these tools, Safechuck said recent wildfire fatalities speak to the need for residents to stay vigilant and prepared.

“We are better at fighting fires than we’ve ever been in the past, and yet we’re still having fires that are taking the lives of a lot of people,” he said, noting that wildfires have recently occurred in areas that have not experienced them historically.

“As the population grows in more rural areas, everything is growing more laterally and pushing more into more urban interfaces. During fires in those areas in the past, maybe there were only a few homes, but now there are many more. It’s important that communities like those get up to speed so that they’re as prepared as possible,” he said.

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