Citizen’s Suggestion Brings a Safer Montecito
This week, Montecito became a little safer. On page 14 you can read about the ALERTCalifornia camera just installed on TV Hill that will provide 24/7 “eyes” on the Santa Barbara Front Country and eventually alert firefighters to new fire starts using artificial intelligence technology.
But before you read about this exciting and potentially lifesaving development, we wanted to reflect upon one of the reasons this is very special.
It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since December 2017, when the Thomas Fire burned its way across the Santa Ynez Mountain Range toward Montecito, and we watched in horror as our community came perilously close to being razed. What we didn’t know at the time was that for days before the fire reached Montecito, local firefighters were feverously reinforcing our existing fuel treatment network behind the homes on East Mountain Drive, making a huge difference when, on December 16 at 6:30 pm, in what’s known as a “sundowner,” the fire came off the mountain making its run at Montecito.
According to Montecito’s Fire Chief, Kevin Taylor, what happened next was completely unheard of.
“There were over 300 engine companies in total in the community that Saturday morning when the sundowner blew the Thomas Fire into Montecito,” Taylor explains. “Shift change is at 7 pm. So that means both shifts, the off going shift (150 engines) along with the oncoming shift (150 engines), 1,200 firefighters, together fought the fire in an effort that quite literally saved Montecito.”
By the hair of our chinny-chin-chin, we escaped that disaster, only to be hit with another disaster when a rainstorm pummeled the charred hills above Montecito causing the January 9th debris flow.
Those of us living here at the time will never forget the trauma that gripped this community that day. Nor will we forget how we came together to help one another get through that catastrophic event and its painful aftermath. That moment revealed the spirit that lives at the core of Montecito. A spirit that not only involves looking out for one another, but one in which community members step up to help solve big problems.
Which leads me to a call I received two years ago from longtime resident Wayne Siemens, asking if I could connect him with Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Taylor to discuss an idea Siemens had to use drones as a tool for local fire monitoring.
“I know we’ve had some good fire chiefs and some lovable characters,” says Siemens, “but Chief Taylor’s the first guy that took out a notepad and said, ‘Let’s figure out how we can get something going that we don’t have now.’ And that was about two years ago. I originally wanted to discuss drones because that was all I knew about. And he grabbed that and said, ‘We’re going to work with this in the meantime or maybe forever.’”
I asked Chief Taylor to share his perspective on the new ALERT cameras and he began by reflecting on Wayne Siemens’ involvement.
“In the course of a day I meet many community members, but very few have ideas for how to make the community safer. The Ring Nets were another example. The thing that set Wayne apart from most people I meet with is that he had a vision of something that’s always watching the front country. And at the time of the vision, it was a drone. That triggered a thought in my mind of this camera supported by artificial intelligence that’s constantly watching for smoke to maybe give us a 60-, 90-, 120-second head start on that fire. Wayne’s suggestion reinvigorated what we were doing at the fire department already and caused us to move it up the priority list. To the point where now, literally today as we’re sitting here, one’s being installed on TV Hill and in the spring, there’ll be one up on Ortega Ridge. It’ll have 100% view of the front country. There’ll be no shadows. They are available to the community, so you can log on to this ALERTCalifornia site and see it for yourself.” Visit https://alertcalifornia.org for more information.
So, hats off to Wayne Siemens for stepping up to support this community he loves so much. Like he did when he heard we might lose our iconic local pharmacy, so he organized community members to put together the funding to save it from falling into the hands of a big conglomerate. But that story is for another day…