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Fire zones drier now than normal, risks for rapid spreads exist

SANTA BARBARA COUNTY, Calif. - The spread of a wildland fire depends on many conditions, including the types of brush in the burn zone, wind conditions and when the area last saw rain. Santa Barbara County has conditions now that are ahead of the normal calendar year when it comes to dryness.

Already the region has seen a late spring sizzling heat wave, a component to fire concerns.

That's added to the dry landscape in the foothills, where there are thousands of residents in fire prone locations. Human behavior is a leading cause of fires, whether accidental or intentional. Utility infrastructure concerns including downed power lines have also been a fire starter. Last year, a wild lightning storm pattern over the state started megafires that burned for months.

The brush conditions are tested with a "live fuel moisture" reading. The samples in many California areas are months ahead of normal due to a lower than average rainy season. Most of the state has serious drought concerns.

The low fuel moisture index also means a rapid rate of spread for fires. The fire behavior is expected to be much faster and more erratic than the public may expect under these conditions.

Santa Barbara County Fire Captain Daniel Bertucelli says, "if a fire breaks out right now with the current conditions,  we could potentially have a significant event."

Preparing for fires involves a combination of many components..
Knowing your weather, geography and science are critical in the attack.

This year, nature was skimpy on rain,  and that means the risk factor for fires is high.

"One of the things that we are dealing with,  extremely dry fuels  it is well ahead," Bertucelli said. "San Luis Obispo,  Santa Barbara and Ventura County, we all had a very minimal rain this rainy season. I would anticipate  fuel moistures both to the north of us and south of us are getting very close to critical."

 The fuel moisture describes the amount of water in the vegetation.
We have a concerning rating now of 65 in Santa Barbara County.

 That's a number they don't usually see in early July.

"Critical is 60, so we are about six to eight weeks ahead of schedule in regards to where our fuel moistures usually are," said Bertucelli.

It won't take much of a  wind or heat event to move a fire into grass or brush where it will have an explosive or  erratic behavior.

"We are going to anticipate not only rapid growth but it is definitely going to be an  extended operation if we can not get ahold of it right away," said Bertucelli.

For the public that means,  a new fire may move faster, hotter and more aggressively than they would expect.

 It may come in the middle of the night with not warning,  or an evacuation alert.
Homes with a defensible space will have the greater chance of surviving.

Science also tells firefighters afternoons can be one of the most dangerous times.

Bertucelli says, "we do have what we call a peak burning period and that is usually around 3-4 o'clock in the afternoon and that is when all of your vegetation has had that sun on it all day long and  it has been drying out all day that is when we anticipate our most intensive burn."

Residents are urged to have a "Ready, Set, Go" plan to prepare for, and possibly, activate an evacuation.

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John Palminteri

John Palminteri is senior reporter for KEYT NewsChannel 3. To learn more about John, click here.

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