Thursday, November 15, 2007

Birds-eye view showcases dry county

photo: Janelle Holcombe
An aerial photo of the Santa Ynez River
drainage shows the stark contrast between
land burned by the Zaca Fire and land that
was spared.


Soaring at 7,500 feet above Santa Barbara County, one thing is perfectly clear: the dusty, brown land is as dry as it has ever been and what wasn’t charred black during the 240,000 acre Zaca Fire, could suffer the same fate soon.
That’s the message the County Fire Department wanted to drum into the minds of local journalists yesterday during a media flight that zigzagged from the north and south to the east and west, where the only patches of green were the intermittent oasis's of golf courses.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize the burn danger we have in this county,” said Captain Eli Iskow, a spokesman for the fire department. “It’s a combustible burn pile and our little communities are in the middle of it all.”
Of particular concern for Iskow and local firefighters are isolated canyon communities like that of Tepusquet Canyon near Santa Maria, which was threatened by the Zaca blaze, and many in the front country, such as Mission Canyon and Sycamore Canyon.
The common themes that Iskow says ties communities like these together is there is one way in and one way out, the terrain is rugged and steep and the brush is thick and dry.
“All of these things are in alignment and it’s bad news for these residents if it burns,” Iskow said. “They’re ripe and ready to go.”
When giant mushroom clouds of smoke loomed above the Santa Ynez Mountains at the end of July, the Zaca Fire likely seemed to many as though it posed little threat to large communities. After all it was burning heavily in the Los Padres National Forest and the haunting cloud appeared to be dozens if not as much as 100 miles away.
But Iskow pointed out just how close that fire came to reaching the Santa Ynez River drainage near Gibraltar Reservoir. Had it done so, he explained, “It would have been off t the races.”
One of the only reasons the Zaca Fire did not make that jump, was favorable wind conditions.
The reservoir itself is tucked not more than a mile below the ridge line. Had the Zaca Fire burned that distance, Iskow said it wouldn’t have taken long to overtake the ridge and begin consuming ancient fuels on the south side of the range.
“On a windy day we were pushing our luck,” Iskow said.
Like the Painted Cave Fire of 1990, which started near the front country and destroyed nearly 500 homes and 50 apartment complexes, Iskow said the fire that will hurt Santa Barbara County is one that is sparked quickly, near populated areas surrounded by dry vegetation, which is pretty much anywhere, with the exception of the Zaca Fire, on the county map.
“The fire that’s going to hurt us is the fire that starts in a hurry in the front country,” Iskow said. “That's the fire we need to be afraid of.”
Iskow said all residents, especially those who live in canyon areas, should be equipped with a wildfire action plan, which is well thought out before an incident occurs.
Iskow said a new and improved wildfire action plan pamphlet with information about what to do in the event of a threatening blaze is available at

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