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Fire risks and explosive fuels can hide under deceptive foothill vegetation

MONTECITO, Calif. - Even with annual brush clearing and community warnings, it is easy to overlook fire dangers in our local foothills.

After years of drought, combined with diseased and dead brush, there are many areas with explosive fire potential that do not appear, at first glance, to be at the extreme danger level. But they are.

High risk areas of lower San Marcos Pass and the Montecito foothills are prime examples. Both areas have had fires but even after those incidents, risks remain.

That includes areas with new growth on top of older dry and dead vegetation and brush.

Montecito fire Protection District Chief Kevin Taylor says, "we're not resting on our laurels, we have tripled our fire prevention effort and we have significantly ramped up our community messaging.  "

These fire zones are well studied and the playbook is ready depending on the conditions.

Captain Daniel Bertucelli with Santa Barbara County Fire said, "they are going to anticipate not only rapid growth but it is definitely going to be an extended operation fire if we can't get ahold of it pretty quick. What you don't see underneath that coastal brush and the green vegetation is there is a dead component, which is why we have such a difficult time containing these brush fires."

It is very deceptive.

.Our conditions have accelerated by the weak winter and some early heat events, instead of a solid winter of rains followed by some in the spring.


"That is not the case  this year so we are at higher risk for  longer duration (fire months)" said Taylor.

Among the messages to the public,   prepare yourself and your families if you live in these areas, evacuate even before you are told if you feel unsafe and regularly clear out areas that could bring fire to your homes.


"We're certainly seeing them preparing their homes, " said Taylor. "Our neighborhood chipping program had record numbers of tonnage removed this year.  I think they all recognize the risk is real."

Climate conditions are also a factor, with a potential to dry out brush that may appear to be holding moisture.

Afternoon hours are among the most volatile of the day.

Fire officials warn the public not to rest on their precautions and preparations. "Ready, set, go" guidelines are on line, and brochures are available at area fire stations.

Areas that have experienced recent fires, may have a reduced threat in some zones, but overall, there's often enough left behind, or a partial burn area to create continued dangers, especially in areas where the brush and housing developments are sharing the same space.

An old burn, however, can be an asset to a current firefight. Flames that run into, for example, a past fire footprint in the recent years, will not have the same spread rate as if it were to hit 50-75 year-old fuels that haven't burned in recent memory. In fact, the forward progress will be slowed significantly. Fire history and how to use it in a current fire situation is an added tool for incident commanders.

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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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