Don’t Let the Wet Winter Fool You… The Threat of Wildfire is Always There

By Christina Atchison   |   July 11, 2023
Both of these examples show restrictive passageways into homes. Make sure that there is at least 13.5 feet of vertical clearance in driveways for first responders.

After a record-setting rain season and months of mild weather, the threat of wildfire may seem like less of a concern for the Santa Barbara County South Coast this year.

As we celebrated the red, white, and blue over the past week, temperatures rose significantly for the first time in 2023. No matter how much rain we received last winter, heatwaves like this one are a harbinger of our wildfire risk. 

On June 28, Montecito Fire Department hosted a Wildfire Preparedness Community Meeting at El Montecito Presbyterian Church alongside our partners from California Highway Patrol, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management, and Santa Barbara Police Department. 

With all the experts gathered in one room, the full picture of our wildfire risk and evacuation challenges became quite clear. Preparing your property for wildfire now and planning your evacuation route(s) are critical to maintaining our community’s resilience. 

This Season’s Fire Danger Outlook

Montecito Wildfire Fire Specialist and Fire Behavior Analyst Nic Elmquist keeps close tabs on fuel moisture levels, fire weather predictions, and current conditions. 

While our local vegetation has retained more moisture than at this time last year, a warmer and drier weather pattern can quickly wick it away. 

“Regardless of the winter’s precipitation, the moisture contained in the chaparral plants will always be at critical levels by the fall,” Elmquist said. “We can almost guarantee fire danger will rapidly rise throughout the summer and be at our typical heightened levels by late summer/early fall, which coincides with when the local strong sundowner winds are most prevalent.”

Elmquist points back to 2008 when despite experiencing 100 percent of normal precipitation in Santa Barbara County, the Tea Fire ignited on November 13 and destroyed several hundred homes in Montecito in just a few short hours. 

“[The Tea Fire] serves as a reminder of our extreme conditions and that regardless of past weather, it is important that we are all well prepared for wildfire,” he said. 

Hardening Your Home Against Wildfire

Elmquist works alongside fellow Wildland Fire Specialist Maeve Juarez. The prolific rain year also brought prolific regrowth of vegetation that she and Elmquist are working hard to trim back before it becomes dangerously crisp. 

“Now is the time to focus on your defensible space, harden your home and ensure you have a plan to be ready for wildfire,” Juarez said. 

She says small, easy steps to “harden” your home can vastly improve your property’s chance of survival. 

Her top tips include upgrading your roof to a noncombustible roof material such as tile or asphalt shingles, installing gutter guards to prevent dry material from collecting in your gutters, and retrofitting your home’s vents with fine, ember-resistant mesh. 

Next, create and maintain defensible space. 

“Defensible space does not mean bare dirt all around your home,” Juarez said. “We ask that you remove any dead vegetation, be diligent with your weed whipping, utilize hardscape, and landscape with fire-resistant plants.”

Defensible space gives firefighters an opportunity to safely defend your home from a wildfire while breaking up pathways for fire that can lead to home ignition. 

Montecito Fire pickups and service vehicles need to be able to fit as well

Additionally, Juarez says a properly maintained driveway can affect your ability to evacuate quickly and whether first responders can get in to protect your home. 

“Always maintain at least 13.5 feet of vertical clearance across the entire width of your driveway,” Juarez said. “As you can see in these pictures (page 11), our Engine 91 can barely make it into this driveway. If my pickup truck can’t fit down your driveway, fire engines cannot make it to your home.”

Evacuation Planning During 101 Construction

Travis Ederer, Montecito Fire Division Chief of Operations, says reviewing your evacuation plan is more important than ever due to the ongoing Highway 101 construction and ancillary roadwork throughout the area. 

The “Ready, Set, Go!” guide is a helpful tool to prepare residents for wildfire and evacuation.

“Ready” means being aware of weather, traffic conditions, time of day, and other factors that may affect your ability to evacuate. “Set” means loading your vehicle and taking proactive steps to ease the process of evacuating. The last step, “Go,” simply means leave now. 

“We always say, ‘leave early,’ and it’s because it is a very stressful scenario for people to evacuate. If you prepare early, that’s alleviating your future stress,” Ederer said. 

Leaving early is particularly important this fire season due to unpredictable traffic.

“It’s counterintuitive, but often faster to drive south to Sheffield to go north to Santa Barbara city. That’s why we say make a plan and reevaluate it consistently,” he said. “Depending on the time and conditions, we may not even want people evacuating to the 101. We may direct you up to Highway 192 south to get on the 101 in Carpinteria.” 

Ederer explains that unified commanders managing a wildfire consider all components impacting the flow of evacuees. During construction, routing traffic efficiently will take some creative thinking. 

“You may find yourself being directed on surface streets into Santa Barbara city,” he said. “Just be patient and leave early.” 

He recommends testing out your evacuation plan at different times of day. Become familiar with local traffic patterns and how you may need to adapt based on whether it is a mid-morning evacuation with minimal traffic or afternoon evacuation with peak congestion. 


Commander Brad Welch with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office has been patrolling the South Coast for 20+ years and asks residents to make security part of their preparedness actions. 

“As law enforcement during an evacuation, we may need to access your property. Please check with your alarm company to make sure you have updated gate codes,” Commander Welch said. “Please share that gate code with Sheriff’s dispatch and Montecito Fire as well.” 

Register for Emergency Alerts

Director of the County’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) Kelly Hubbard says social science has found that people typically check at least three sources before responding to an official emergency alert like the ones her team sends out. 

“A standard person will check the news, talk to their neighbor, check a website, maybe check another website, and then start to react,” Hubbard said. “So, we use as many different methods as possible to get our message out.” 

One of those methods is ReadySBC Alerts – the County’s emergency notification system that residents mustregister for in advance. You may register up to five different addresses such as your home, workplace, child’s school, and an at-risk loved one’s address. You must have at least one contact method (phone number, email address) and one physical address. 

Hubbard says many residents report not receiving ReadySBC Alerts. Investigation into the failed delivery often finds a resident’s information was entered with a typo. 

“I highly encourage you to go back to even if you’ve registered before and check to make sure you don’t have a typo or any other issues with the accuracy of your information,” Hubbard said. 

OEM also uses wireless emergency alerts, which send messages to cell towers, the emergency alert system that is the banner that comes across your TV screen, as well as door-to-door notifications whenever feasible. 

Fire Chief’s Message

Montecito Fire Chief David Neels has been at the helm of our department since April, but been part of numerous emergency responses over his 25+ years as a firefighter in Santa Barbara County.

“The year of the Zaca Fire, I remember that before the fire, residents had removed 50 tons of material. When that smoke column from the Zaca Fire went up, they cleared another 75 tons,” Neels said. “Sometimes we need that reminder. That’s why we’re reminding you that while we have many beautiful days ahead, the threat of wildfire is always there.” 

Chief Neels asks all community members to take an active role in preparing for wildfire this season. 

“As we know, it takes the entire community to be ready for an emergency,” Neels said. “That’s why we so appreciate you working with Nic, Maeve, and our engine companies on your defensible space and home hardening, as well as taking a close look at your evacuation plans, especially during the construction projects.”

To watch the entire Wildfire Preparedness Community Meeting, visit  


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