Not Time To Panic, But Time To Prepare

The Zaca Fire, which has already devoured over 70,000 acres of mostly remote woodland, continues to move north… and east. Montecito is southeast of the fire, but it won’t take much to put this village in the fire’s path – a good Santa Ana or sundowner could do the trick. Dry Santa Ana winds could develop from an inland high-pressure system if one developed east of us. Those winds, which can range anywhere from 25 mph to over 60 mph, compress between valley walls, and can swirl, sending flames from an already burning wildfire in all directions. Sundowners, so called because they usually come in off the desert around sundown, are, according the American Meteorological Society, peculiar to the Santa Barbara area’s east/west mountain range. Their hot, dry, winds can reach temperatures over 100-degrees F and blow at more than 65 miles per hour. A sundowner is what firefighters here fear most.

That’s why a special “Town Hall Meeting” was called for Monday, August 6, 6 pm, at El Montecito Presbyterian Church on East Valley Road. The callout began on Sunday night with Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Wallace and went out to MERRAG (Montecito Emergency Response & Recovery Action Group) members, who activated the group’s phone tree. My son Tim Buckley put it up on our website ( and e-mailed his list of media outlets, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances, as did MERRAG members. Later, J’Amy Brown responded by putting up the call on her website and she too e-mailed interested parties. It was too late to get anything in the News-Press; ditto for KEYT and radio stations. That more than 500 residents crammed into ElMo’s meeting hall with less than 24 hours’ notice is a tribute to the power of the internet. The traffic jam created by so many people arriving at the same time was also an early and eerie reminder of the kind of traffic a Montecito Evacuation Order, if one comes, will create.

Exceeding The Maximum Fire Occupancy

Chief Wallace addressed the crowd, which spilled out from every door and opening, since every seat inside was taken. He told those assembled that this was an official meeting of the Montecito Fire District Board of Directors, and that the three directors – John Venable, Dana Newquist, and Roy Jensen – were present and may have some “housecleaning” to do before the meeting could begin. Director John Venable, assuaged the crowd by announcing that “The majority of the board of directors must determine that this emergency exists; it’s required by state law. The emergency exists,” he said, and the meeting began with Chief Wallace assuring the crowd that Jim Langhorne, County Fire Marshal, had given him permission to exceed “the maximum fire occupancy” allowed in the building by the fire codes because they were in a fire watch condition.

“If the winds were to take a turn, we want everyone to be ready; have all your plans, check your kids,” he advised. “I’ll try not to scare everybody,” he continued, “but at the same time I want us all to be aware of the danger. Fire is fire, and it’s burning north of us.” Wallace and the fire team had determined that when the fire crossed Buckhorn Road, that would be the time to call this meeting. “The fire has now crossed the Buckhorn Road,” Wallace warned, “and is burning in areas of the Dick Smith Wilderness; it’s burning wilderness that hasn’t burned in a hundred years.” That got everyone’s attention.

The question, he said, was what we would have to do if we had to evacuate. In order to answer that, fire crews might be seen on East Valley Road, East Mountain Drive, and other Montecito lanes. “Don’t be alarmed if you see fire engines in the area,” Wallace said, “They’re learning the terrain and studying the situation in Montecito in case they need to come here… and if it crosses the Santa Ynez River, we’ll have a 24-hour evacuation time.” If the fire hits East Camino Cielo, an evacuation warning will be put out, with the next step being an evacuation order that would cover everyone from Camino Cielo to the beach. That really got everyone’s attention.

The Reverse 9-1-1 Gambit

Lt. Darin Fotheringham of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department explained that his department would be in charge of any evacuation, and the first step would be to activate the reverse 9-1-1 system, notifying by telephone every land line within the evacuation zone. Some 4,000 calls would go out in a matter of minutes. If you do not have a landline, the reverse 9-1-1 system will not be able to call you. You can, however, call the Sheriff’s Department and list your wireless phone with them. That will give you a better chance of receiving the 9-1-1 call. If you have a telephone block, the block will also prevent you from receiving a reverse 9-1-1 call. Both listed and unlisted numbers are updated once a week, “so even if you’ve just changed your telephone number and it’s unlisted, we still get it. We’re the law,” Fotheringham said with a smile.

Simultaneously, a news release would be issued, notifying all media outlets. A helicopter with a PA system will fly overhead, ordering the evacuation, backed up by “black and whites” from the Highway Patrol driving up and down streets with their PA systems.

MERRAG volunteers will be activated to assist the Forest Service, working directly under the Montecito Fire District. When the order to evacuate comes, traffic control points will be set up, manned by MERRAG volunteers, among others. Evacuation routes were yet to be determined; they would depend upon which direction the fire was coming from, but the general direction will be “down canyon” to Highway 101 and east or west from there. Sycamore Canyon will be opened for down canyon traffic only.

Some things to do in advance:

If the fire shifts in our direction, it may take out the power lines and leave much of Santa Barbara in the dark. If you have electric gates to your property, leave them open. Stock up on candles and batteries. Prepare your battery-operated portable radio and your portable generator if you have one. If you have a landline telephone that has a backup battery capability, put new batteries in now. Keep your gas tank filled. If you have a large animal, move it out upon word of an evacuation warning, don’t wait for an “order.” Take small animals with you. If you have to evacuate, shut off propane tanks before leaving, but don’t try to come back just to shut them off. Lock your doors and windows.

“Anything Can Happen”

Montecito Water District General Manager Bob Roebuck noted that Montecito is fortunate in that its main water supply – Jameson Lake – feeds most homes via gravity, and that pump stations are supplied with backup power, “so water should be no problem if we lose power.” He did warn homeowners not to strain water resources by hosing down their houses. “Let the fire department do what they do best, and that is to put out the fire,” he said. “We presently have all the reservoirs topped off and we’ll keep them that way until this fire is no longer a threat to our community,” he said, to cheers.

“Mother Nature is a terrible beast,” noted Dan Kleinman, Deputy Incident Commander with U.S. Forest Service, as he explained some of the more excruciating details of firefighting. “We don’t want to take the fire on head to head. When the fire is at its maximum energy point, it’s dangerous and any effort may not be successful. You need to be smart and clever in your tactics and take advantage of your opportunities. At times, when the fire lays down, even in heavy brush, sometimes all it takes is just a little scrape (to create a fire line, or fire break). When the conditions are just right, there are no flames. The fire is out. So, you’re able to cool that edge, make that break; that much is all you need. That’s not all we’re doing, but you need to understand the dynamics of the environment.” Most of us still didn’t “understand the dynamics,” but were reassured that men like Kleinman do. He refused to guess as to the likelihood of the fire reaching or affecting Montecito. “Anything can happen,” he warned.

“The fire is moving east and it’s all dependent upon the weather,” he advised. “Even if the flow is north, it could easily skip the dozer line, but I want the public to know that we are concerned and we all have trigger points. We aren’t just being Chicken Little if we give a 24-hour warning. If that fire breaches Camino Cielo, and we get sundowners and that fire comes over the crest, you have to be ready for it. It’s so unpredictable.”

Keep these phone numbers near, at least for the next week or so, perhaps permanently somewhere on your refrigerator or inside a desk:

Equine Evacuation Planning: 961-5793

Highway Patrol: 688-5551

Montecito Fire Protection District: 969-3598

Montecito Sanitary District: 969-4200

Montecito Water District: 969-2271

Sheriff’s Department: 684-4561

The fire is not likely to burn towards Montecito, but it could. And, because it could, hoping for the best and being prepared for the worst is a policy you should put in place today.