This guide is intended to assist the media with obtaining timely information from the Santa Barbara County Fire Department (SBCFD) and to provide the media with a basic outline of how information is released. This is a reference guide only and is not intended to cover every situation.
Vegetation Fire Media Information
This booklet is intended to help you cover vegetation (or wildfires) in the Santa Barbara Area. We know fires can be scary and seem completely out of control.
The Santa Barbara County Fire Department trains continuously throughout the year for vegetation fires. Our Mission is to keep 90% of vegetation fires held to 10 acres or less. Sometimes that’s impossible.
We know that. With certain weather and fuel conditions such as the 1990 Painted Cave Fire, there were nearly 500 homes lost in only 90 minutes. A manmade fuel break of a six lane freeway and railroad track couldn’t stop the fire’s progress. The only thing that stopped that fire from reaching the Pacific Ocean was that the Sundowner winds stopped.
Large fires are scary. They’re deadly.
You are asked to cover such an event, are you prepared?
Please review this material that’s meant to aid you in safely covering these destructive conflagrations that routinely scar our county.
It All Begins With The Red Card
A Red Card is officially known as an Incident Qualification Card. This card is generated from a training and qualification database run by federal and state agencies that work in cooperation with the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG).
Called the Incident Qualification and Certification System (IQCS) or in some areas the Incident Qualification System (IQS), this program tracks an individual’s training and incident responses. A Red Card is like a sort of license that indicates what positions the card-holder is qualified to operate in. The software tracks this training and experience and then determines if the individual has met the requirements for a given position. These positions are defined in an NWCG-published document called the Wildland Fire Qualification System Guide, or more commonly, PMS 310-1. A lengthy read to say the least, this document defines the requirements for someone to be qualified in a position and therefore hold a Red Card indicating so.
Red Cards are utilized by state, federal and other fire agencies that work cooperatively with the NWCG. All federal and tribal firefighters are issued Red Cards. Many local government agencies that have members who work on incident management teams (IMTs) or that mobilize to large wildland fire incidents also carry Red Cards.
A Red Card is issued to any individual who has qualifications used on a wildland fire incident, including positions in firefighting, logistics, finance, PIO, and planning.
There are several reasons why a department may wish to have its personnel “Red-Carded,” or more accurately, qualified by NWCG standard to operate within the NWCG’s system. Departments such as SBC, which work closely with neighboring federal agencies or that share protection responsibility for public lands, find it necessary to have staff members Red-Carded. This enables personnel to work on federally managed incidents as firefighters or other personnel. All qualified personnel can now be requested through a computer ordering process. Single person positions, strike teams, or other resources can be ordered and assigned for various fires. It also enables federal agencies to reimburse departments for personnel and equipment costs on incidents. More importantly, it shows that a fire department has taken the initiative to train its personnel to the same level and through the same process as their federal cooperators. This commitment can go a long way in improving relationships and creating training opportunities among local, state and federal government agencies.
The NWCG operates under a “performance-based system.” Position task books define the set of skills required for a given position. PMS 310-1 defines the experience and educational requirements, along with successful performance in a position (verified by a task book) required for qualification. This means that a SBC employee who wants to be qualified in a position must meet the specified requirements set forth in PMS 310-1 prior to initiating a task book, then demonstrate performance at that level as a trainee. Once all tasks and required training are complete and the SBC employee’s task book is signed off by a series of evaluators, the SBC employee is eligible to be qualified for that fire season. At the beginning of the high fire season, refresher videos, classes, and practical applications (such as live drills) are completed to obtain that season’s Red Card.
SBC Morning Report
Every morning the SBC Duty Officer (who holds the rank of Captain and is assigned to work in the Dispatch Center) generates this morning report and disseminates it to SBC and other fire agencies in the county andregion.
It gives the status of personnel and equipment for the 24-hr operational period and if any resources are assigned to out of county incidents. It also gives the on-call Strike Team rotations for the day for South Ops Geographical Area Coordination Center.
How Does A San Diego City Fire Engine End Up In Santa Barbara County?
Fire breaks out.
Who does the Direct Protection Area belong to? (Basically, whose dirt is it? – USFS, SBC, SLO, CAL FIRE) This determines the resource “ordering point.” Once determined that dispatch center becomes the ordering point (for this example we will say it’s SBC’s dirt)
The Duty Officer (which is a Captain) in the dispatch center will “name” the incident. This is based on a local geographic landmark or road. It must be only one word and can only be used on a fire once for that calendar year. (You may have two “Paint” Fires in different years, but you can’t have a “Painted Cave” Fire—too many words)
The Duty Officer will get requests from the on-scene Incident Commander (Usually a Battalion Chief or earlier in the incident, a Captain)
All orders are then placed via computer through ROSS (Resource Order and Status System) goes to South Ops, which is located in Riverside
(North Ops is in Redding)
At South Ops, there are two separate Geographical Area Coordination Center (GACC) divided between the US Forest Service and Contract County/Cal Fire Centers.
Depending upon other fire activity in the region, the request through South Ops will go methodically to various departments and counties closest to the fire to fill the request. The request will be filled if that agency has the resources available. If the resources are not available due to another fire/incident, it can be declined. Everyone who is requested (whether on an engine, aircraft, crew, or single resource has been “Red Carded” and in the computer system).
South Ops looks at the various fires/threats/requests and determines a daily priority list of fires. A fire will get a higher priority if structures are threatened. (The Whittier Fire was bounced around several times in the Top 5 in SoCal, and also was considered the #1 Fire) This helps with aircraft availability primarily, but also ground resources and length of response.
If South Ops requests an SBC Strike Team for an out of county incident, the Duty Officer will first get the approval from a Duty Chief/Division Chief prior to accepting the request.
What can be ordered through ROSS are, Strike Teams, Dozers, Aircraft, Facilities, IMT Teams, Water Tenders, Private Fire Contractors, Hand Crews, Single Resource Personnel, and Overhead. Basically anything that will work the incident.
With the resources ordered, they will respond and report to a staging area or base camp for the incident by a certain time.
Once assigned to the incident, they are usually assigned for a maximum 14 day period. This can be extended an additional seven days before replacement crews arrive. Or, the assignment can be shortened if released.
A daily DEMOB (demobilization) list is posted in camp letting firefighters know if they will be released that day or next. They then go through the DEMOB process (which takes about an hour to go to supply, radio, finance, vehicle inspection, etc.) and head to home or be re-assigned to another fire.
This is an actual filled order request from the ROSS system for a five engine Type 3 Strike Team and Strike Team Leader from SBC to the MIAS Fire in Beaumont in August 2017.
“You will not find it difficult to prove that battles, campaigns, and even wars have been won or lost primarily because of logistics.”
– Dwight D. Eisenhower
SBC’s Logistics Section consists of 3 personnel and 1 Captain. When there is not a fire, they support the 16 SBC Fire Stations with everything from lightbulbs to the Jaws of Life tools.
During the first hours of a vegetation fire, fire resources may be coming to the scene from near and far.
While the firefighters are working hard, sometimes it takes days, weeks, or even months to finally put a fire out. In these such cases the firefighters need the support of the Logistics Section, or LOGS, to enable a successful outcome. The three major items needed initially are food, water, and sanitation.
During the first hours, meals are ordered for the personnel on scene. This usually is something ready made and can be delivered by LOGS and handed off quickly on the fire line, such as a sandwich or burrito. This will have to sustain the firefighters for the overnight period.
Usually the initial assignment, or IA, crews will work all night without a break until the morning briefing.
At the same time, the Logistics Section is ordering a hot breakfast for the morning and a 3000 calorie sack lunch to be given to them on their way back out to the fireline. LOGS will call a vendor by 10 PM and will have up to 2,000 sack lunches delivered by 6 AM. When the camp is fully operational, the firefighters will get a daily hot breakfast and dinner, along with their sack lunch.
LOGS also will prepare the first Incident Action Plan (IAP) and maps for the morning briefing to be handed out to crews and command staff.
Other necessary items are roughly 20 portable toilets, a fuel truck, a hydration trailer that includes 2 pallets of ice, 7 pallets of water, and 3 pallets of Gatorade. The hydration trailer will also need to be replenished at some point.
Now, where will the fire camp be located? If there is a fire in the front country, Dos Pueblos High School has been used, as well as Earl Warren Showgrounds, however schedule conflicts may not make this possible. Live Oak Campground or Elks Rodeo Field may be used for north county incidents. This needs to be worked out quickly as resources are already on their way.
If the fire continues to grow, LOGS will ready the Type 3 for transition to a Type 2 or Type 1 Incident Management Team. With these larger teams, comes more firefighting resources. A temporary city will need to be built to accommodate the personnel. Portable trailers for “Main Street” where the Incident Commander, Finance, PIO, Plans, Check-In/Demob and others will be housed. Other items such as shower trailers, sleeping trailers, lighting, dumpsters, meals, map making & copy trailer, supply and equipment, radios, and more now need to be ordered. With larger IMT teams comes more regulations. Cal Fire, for instance, differs from the USFS when it comes to how things such as individual vendors are selected for incidents. Also where will the crews sleep? Most bring their personal tents, Cal Fire has negotiated in their contract they will stay in motels.
It costs roughly $120 thousand a day for a Type 1 Team’s approx 60 personnel, $80 thousand a day for a Type 2’s 40-50 personnel, and $35 thousand a day for a Type 3’s 30 personnel. (This is salary for members of the team. This does not include single resources, engine companies, crew, dozer, aircraft, vendors for camp, etc).
At Base Camp, the firefighters are served a hot breakfast (usually from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.) and dinner (usually from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.) daily.
Ever wonder what crews eat while on the firelines? Here’s a photo showing the famous fire line brown bag lunch which is ordered through the LOGS Section. It must be a 3000 calorie lunch sack that has also has
Every day a firefighter is on the line, they are responsible for picking up a brown bag lunch at base camp to feed themselves. They get one bag for a 12-hr shift and two if they are working a 24-hr shift. They have a meat and vegetarian version of each. This photo is of a vegetarian brown bag lunch.
Green burrito with portobello mushrooms, Chinese noodles and red bell peppers. The white burrito has leaf lettuce and a slice of cheddar cheese. The rest is easy to see. The non-vegetarian version of this contains a ham sandwich on wheat.
While crews are off, they also may, as a group, go into town and eat at a local restaurant if they choose.
Group briefings and fire acreage & containment numbers are held 12 hrs apart. They are usually held for the day shift at 7 AM and the night shift at 7 PM, but can also be at 6 AM and 6 PM.
During this time the Incident Action Plan or IAP for that shift is discussed by leaders of the various sections of the fire to crews coming on for that shift. Some of the topics that are discussed are;
- SAFETY MESSAGE – Tailored for each particular shift/weather conditions/terrain. Review LCES. All are reminded that a building or patch of dirt isn’t worth their life.
- INCIDENT OBJECTIVES – Strategies for containment of the fire.
- ORGANIZATION LIST – Identifies Incident Commander and Staff, Agency Representatives, Planning Section, Logistics Section, Operations Section (including various Branches including Air Ops Branch), and Finance Section.
- SPOT FIRE WEATHER FORECAST – From Incident Meteorologist. Includes predicted temperatures, winds, humidity, and fire behavioral forecast. Also specific to various Divisions.
- DIVISION ASSIGNMENTS – Breakdown of resources assigned to various Divisions including Division Leader, Engines, Crews, Dozers, Water Tenders, etc. Also includes how many personnel assigned to each resource for accountability purposes.
- RADIO COMMUNICATIONS PLAN – Frequencies and channels for all radios and hand-held devices used on fire.
- MEDICAL PLAN – Medical Aid Stations, local hospitals, who would transport (AMR, Calstar, etc) distances to Drop Points (Lat & Long), addresses of hospitals & travel times.
- AIR OPERATIONS PLAN – Frequencies, available helicopters and fixed-wing, air attack contact, & TFR Restriction.
Also distributed at both briefings are multi-page detailed topographic and grid index maps that focus on all of the division of the fire. They also show drop points, divisions, branches, uncontrolled fire edge, completed dozer line, completed line, hand lines, and proposed dozer lines.
Fire Incident Map
Shows perimeter of the fire.
Red line shows uncontrolled fire edge
Black edge shows controlled edge
)( Shows Division breaks of fire (which can
expand with fire growth.
][ Shows Branch breaks of fire.
Other points such as Drop Points, Water Sources, etc.
Usually updated on 12-hr increments
Atmospheric stability can be defined as the atmosphere’s resistance to the upward or downward movement of air. Unstable air encourages the vertical movement of air and tends to increase fire activity. Stable air discourages the vertical movement of air and tends to reduce fire activity.
Other indicators can also reveal important information about local atmospheric conditions. Steady winds indicate stable air; gusty winds are indication of unstable air, except where mechanical turbulence (usually caused by terrain features) is the obvious cause. Fire whirls or dust devils are reliable indicators of instability near the surface. Haze and smoke tend to rise in unstable air and to spread horizontally instable air.
Different cloud formations also indicate atmospheric stability or instability. Cumulus clouds are characterized by vertical currents and therefore indicate unstable atmospheric conditions and possibility of gusty or strong winds. The heights of cumulus clouds indicate the depth and intensity of the instability. When the atmosphere is unstable, formerly calm fires may suddenly blow up and become very erratic.
Daily weather cycles also affect fire behavior, and they, too, tend to be predictable. For every 24 hr period, it is possible to make general predictions about burning conditions.
Local winds may also vary according to the time of day. In foothills, daytime heating of the land produces an upward movement of air, creating up-canyon winds. At night, cooling of the land produces a downslope wind.
Short-term variations in the atmosphere are what we call weather. Weather is one of three components of the fire environment.
Weather conditions can result in the rapid spread of fires as a result of strong winds. On the other hand, an increase in humidity or precipitation can slow or extinguish fires. Of the three fire environment components, weather is the most variable over time, and at times, difficult to predict.
Firefighters conducting fire suppression must monitor the weather at all times to make safe and effective firefighting decisions. This can not be overstressed.
The basic principles and concepts of fire weather as they relate to wild land fire behavior include:
- Air Temperature and Relative Humidity (RH)
- Atmospheric Stability
Air temperature varies with time, location, and altitude. Abrupt changes in temperature can occur when migrating weather systems transport colder or warmer air into a region. In the wildland fire environment, direct sunlight and hot temperatures can preheat fuels and bring them closer to their ignition point. Above average temperatures are common on large fires.
Relative humidity is the amount of moisture in the air divided by the amount the air could hold when saturated at the same air temperature. It is usually expressed as a percentage. Small changes in RH that cannot be felt or seen can have a significant impact on wildland fire behavior (such as light, grassy fuels)
Temperature and relative humidity have an inverse relationship. When temperature increases, RH decreases. During the early morning hours, the temperature typically reaches its lowest point and the RH reaches its highest point.
When the temperature reaches its maximum for the day (usually in the late afternoon) the RH decreases and the fuel moisture reaches its minimum. The majority of large fire outbreaks and fire growth occur during this time.
Wildfires are greatly affected by surface winds, temperature, and RH, but, less obvious and yet equally important, is atmospheric stability and related vertical air movements that influence wildfires. Atmospheric stability is the degree to which vertical motion in the atmosphere is enhanced or suppressed. The temperature and stability of the atmosphere is constantly changing with variations over time.
A stable atmosphere is defined as an atmosphere that resists upward motion. In this condition, the extensive heat of the fire generates vertical motion near the surface, but the vertical motion above the surface is weakened, thus limiting ingrafts into the fire at low levels and fire intensity. Some visual indicators of this are; Clouds in layers, stratus type clouds, smoke column drifts apart after limited rise, poor visibility due to smoke or haze, fog layers, steady winds.
An unstable atmosphere is defined as an atmosphere that encourages upward motion. In this condition, vertical motion increases contributing to increased fire activity. Convection columns can reach greater heights producing stronger ingrafts and convective updrafts, spotting can occur, dust devils and fire whirls, and gusty surface winds. Fires burn hotter and with more intensity when the air is unstable. Some visual indicators of this are; Clouds grow vertically and smoke rises to great heights, cumulus clouds, good visibility, gusty winds, and dust devils/fire whirls.
Inversions and Nighttime (Radiation) Inversions
The usual temperature structure of the lower atmosphere is characterized by a decrease in temperature with altitude. However a layer where temperature increases with altitude (warm air over cold air) may exist. This is refered to as an inversion. During this time, fuel RH is usually higher, thus fire spread is reduced. Updrafts are usually weak and only rise until their temperature equals that of the surrounding air. Once this happens, the smoke flattens out and spreads horizontally. Nighttime (radiation) inversions develop on calm, clear nights when radiational cooling of the Earth’s surface is greatest and are typically stronger in winter than summer. They’re easy to identify because they trap smoke and gases resulting in poor visibilities in valleys or drainages.
Winds impact the fire environment by increasing the supply of oxygen to the fire, determine the direction of fire spread, increase the drying of fuels, carry sparks and firebrands ahead of main fire causing spot fires, bend flames that result in the preheating of fuels ahead of the fire, influence the amount of fuel consumed by affecting the residence time of the flaming front of the fire. The stronger the wind, the shorter the residence time and the less fuel is consumed. (This was apparent along Highway 154 during the Whittier Fire and “hopscotching” appearance).
Press Conferences For Large Incidentss
For Santa Barbara County Fire Department, the Public Information Officer (PIO) Section is currently staffed with two full-time positions which work a M-Th 4/10 schedule, but are always on-call 24/7. There is a small cadre of others who will fill in with the on-call PIO duties when necessary.
For a large fire, they will respond as part of the initial assignment. Both are members of the IMT-3 and would be assigned to the fire as a single resource for the incoming IMT-2 or IMT-1, each of which has their own lead PIO as part of the Command/General Staff. In the Chain of Command, SBC PIO’s would now be working for that Incident Management Team’s PIO.
For large incidents, such as the Whittier or Rey Fire, there were 12 additional PIO’s ordered as a Single Resource from as far away as Florida and Alaska. SBC’s PIO Section will usually handle the local media requests due to existing relationships and knowledge of the area, but the others may do interviews as well. Primarily, the other PIOs will answer phone banks, go to temporary kiosks that have been placed near local businesses to answer incident information, as well as update InciWeb and social media. The updated information on acres burned and containment percentage is released during the morning and night briefing.
A formal press conference will usually take place at the request of the Incident Commander. This is to disseminate specific information that is necessary to get out to the public. Additionally, representatives from Cooperating Agencies and Elected Officials will be on hand to answer questions.
Every attempt is made by the PIOs to assist media with access, articles, and accurate information during incidents.
InciWeb is updated throughout the day and can be found at https://inciweb.nwcg.gov
Progressive Hose Packs
Over 300,000 feet of hose line was used during the Whittier Fire.
Hose packs can be carried on the back or front of a firefighter (or both) to extend a line in attacking a fire. They are usually left at the scene for future mop-up and replaced with new packs at Base Camp. Due to the terrain and single jacket cotton design, they can tear or burst while in operation. A new section then replaces the old one. They pose additional hazard as they may have been dragged over poison oak and then handled by personnel.
Hose packs are folded and carried in a pack that can be easily deployed on a vegetation fire. They consist of;
1 100’ section of 1 1/2” single jacketed cotton hose.
1 100’ section of 1” single jacketed cotton hose.
1 1 1/2” Gated Wye
1 1 1/2” to 1” reducer
SBC Crew 1-1 and 1-2
SBC has two hand crews. Crew 1-1 works 4/10 hour days Sunday-Wednesday, and Crew 1-2 works 4/10 hour days Wednesday-Saturday. Each crew has 15 crew members and a Crew Boss. They are supervised by a Captain, who is the Crew Superintendent. They are an “All Risk” crew and can be dispatched anywhere in the state.
Patrol and Crew Supt.
4 x 4 pickup with 150 gallon tank and pump. It carries additional hose, emergency supplies, fuel, and parts for equipment. One will respond with each of the two crews and the other is assigned to the Captain who is also the Crew Superintendent.
Air-conditioned transport with 4 x 4 capabilities. It carries the Hand Crew to the scene or can be parked and the crew will hike to the necessary location. It carries 15 crew members and one crew boss, as well as all of their equipment and packs.
SBC Hand Crew PPE (Personal Protective Equipment)
SBC Hand Crew Pack
SBC Hand Crew Tools Of The Trade
SBC Construction Section
The primary mission of the section is vegetation fire suppression. The dozers are a resource for fire line construction. The personnel assigned to the section are responsible for the three dozers, transports, and a “swamper”.
The main function of the section is to fight vegetation fires with heavy equipment (such as bulldozers). One dozer can do the work of about 60 hand crew members in building a fire line.
The Construction Section serves many other important functions for the Department as well, such as: maintaining fire access roads, preparation for prescribed burns, hazard reduction projects, metal fabrication, chainsaw maintenance and repair, vehicle maintenance and repair, and many other special projects. This section may also be called upon to assist during other emergencies such as floods, earthquakes, structure fires, urban search and rescue, and more.
SBC usually constructs fire lines in one of two ways: with hand crews using hand tools, or by bulldozer. Bulldozer lines are constructed by blading the ground –removing flammable plant material down to bare soil.
Dozer lines can vary in width from a single dozer blade to many dozer blades wide, depending on the type of vegetation burning. Dozers can cut line at a rate of one to eight miles an hour, but typically cut line from one to three miles per hour depending on terrain, vegetation, and conditions.
Electrical Safety & Lines Down
On August 23, 2003, SBC acting Captain Howard Orr came in contact with a downed power line on a vegetation fire. He received 7,400 volts of electricity traveling throughout his body for nearly 30 seconds before he was saved by his firefighter who had to make several attempts to rescue him before he was successful.
It took several attempts to pull Orr from the downed line, which was hidden by a pile of logs the pair was trying to remove from their fire truck’s path. The electricity jolted him back with each attempt, but the firefighter ran to grab shovels from other approaching firefighters, who helped him pry Orr from the line.
A safety check-back is now initiated by dispatch to all responding units acknowledging the life-hazard if wires are known to be down.
Assume all lines are energized
Power lines on the ground can be dangerous without even being touched. When an energized electrical wire comes in contact with the ground, current flows outward in all directions from the point of contact. As the current flows in all directions away from the point of contact, the voltage drops. This is called ground gradient.
Depending upon the voltage involved and other variables such as ground moisture, this energized field can extend for several feet from the point of contact. A person walking into this field can be electrocuted because of the differing potentials between each foot.
Be aware of chain link fences and water puddles as they can become energized from a downed line.
To avoid this, one should stay away from downed wires a distance equal to one span between poles until one is certain that power has been turned off.
Remote Automated Weather Stations
RAWS means Remote Automated Weather Station. A RAWS is a tower equipped with computerized sensing equipment that samples weather conditions every hour and transmits data to a satellite. CAL FIRE uses the weather observations to calculate fire danger throughout the day and dispatch appropriate levels of resources to incidents.
CAL FIRE has 78 permanent RAWS located throughout the state. In addition, CAL FIRE has 21 portable RAWS used to monitor weather conditions at emergency incidents and during control burns. The weather stations are part of an interagency network of over 350 RAWS located throughout the state and utilized by CAL FIRE and other wildland
Fire Weather Watch and Red Flag Warning:
A fire weather watch or red flag warning simply indicates a state of readiness (there is no actual flag).
The National Weather Service in Oxnard initiates the process. If the NWS believes weather conditions could exist in specified zones over the next 12-72 hours which may result in extreme fire behavior, they will notify the SBC of a fire-weather watch. SBC will notify the media, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, and the public after written notification from the NWS. A red flag warning is issued for events that will occur within 24 hours.
These watches and warnings are called because of a combination of high temperatures, low humidity, and high winds. They can also be issued when there is a possibility of dry lightning. The concern is that if a fire starts in those conditions, it has a better chance of spreading very rapidly and erratically.
During a Red Flag Warning, SBC will upstaff personnel or proactively stage equipment along the South Coast. There also may be parking restrictions in high-risk areas.
Enforcement & Investigation
“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
“The cause is under investigation.”
For the media, this can be a frustrating response as to the cause of a vegetation (or any) fire. You can see that the fire started near the road and don’t understand why a cause can’t be released quickly?
SBC’s Investigators utilize “The Scientific Method” in determining the cause of a fire. Take the roadside fire. What caused it? And where is the Point of Origin?
- Power lines (down due to weather, bird, mylar balloon)
- Passing vehicle (dragging a chain, catalytic converter, thrown object)
- Near a neighborhood (juveniles)
- Near a ranch (cutting, welding, grinding)
- Vehicle accident
- Vehicle fire
- Mower or power equipment
- Check with CHP or Sheriff for any similar reports in the area
The reason for using this method is to confirm or discredit a cause. The Investigators have Peace Officer Powers in addition to being Firefighters. They work closely with other agencies including the District Attorney, as well as insurance companies, to determine a cause. They also may testify in court regarding their conclusions. For the 10% of the time you see them at a scene, they will spend another 90% working on the investigation, writing reports, conducting interviews, etc.
Sometimes the fire cause may be “undetermined”. This is because the Investigators need to be able to confirm-without a doubt-in order to state a specific cause. If it’s possible that two or more causes, such as the one mentioned above, are responsible for starting a fire, it would be listed as “undetermined”
This cause can also help in the future if similar fires occur and it’s later determined that it was the act of an arsonist. The earlier fire cause can now be reexamined and compared with the new fire because it was not given a specific irrefutable cause.
Simply put, for legal reasons, they can not release any information until a cause has been determined, agreed upon, and vetted. If it seems very similar to a law enforcement investigation, it’s because it is one.
All Fires Are Considered Crime Scenes Until Proven Otherwise
Please be mindful of the point of origin and nearby area. Stay a distance away as to not contaminate the scene with footprints, tire marks, etc.
Our Investigators, if time permits, are willing to accommodate the media and allow access from outside the Area of Origin at the scene once they have completed their work.
SBC has a team of two Engineer/Inspectors and one Captain that investigate several hundred cases a year in addition to their regular duties.
Vegetation Fire Vocabulary
Parts Of A Vegetation Fire
- Point Of Origin – The precise location where a competent ignition source came into contact with the material first ignited and sustained combustion occurred.
- Head Of A Fire – The side of the fire having the fastest rate of spread.
- Flank Of A Fire – The part of a fire’s perimeter that is roughly parallel to the main direction of spread.
- Rear Of A Fire – That portion of a fire edge opposite the head. The slowest spreading portion of a fire edge. Also called heel of a fire.
- Fire Perimeter – The entire outer edge or boundary of a fire.
- Fingers Of A Fire – The long narrow extensions of a fire projecting from the main body.
- Pockets Of A Fire – Unburned indentations in the fire edge formed by fingers or slow burning areas.
- Island – Area of unburned fuel inside the fire perimeter.
- Spot Fire – Fire ignited outside the perimeter of the main fire by a firebrand.
Fire Behavior Terms
- Smoldering – Fire burning without flame and barely spreading.
- Creeping Fire – Fire burning with a low flame and spreading slowly.
- Running Fire – Behavior of a fire spreading rapidly with a well defined head.
- Spotting – Behavior of a fire producing sparks or embers that are carried by wind which start new fires beyond the zone of direct ignition by the main fire.
- Torching – The burning of the foliage of a single tree or a small group of trees, from the bottom up.
- Crown Fire – A fire that advances from top to top of trees or shrubs more or less independently of the surface fire.
- Flare Up – Any sudden acceleration in the rate of spread or intensification of the fire. Unlike a blowup, a flare-up is of a relativity short duration and does not change existing control plans.
- Fire Whirl – Spinning vortex column of ascending hot air and gases rising from a fire and carrying a lot of smoke, debris, and flame due to erratic winds. Fire whirls are common and range is size from
less than one foot to over 500 feet in diameter and can range from 10 to over 4,000 feet in height. Large fire whirls have the intensity of a small tornado with winds from 20 mph-70 mph, they are mostly
found on the leeward side of a ridge. They’re dangerous also because they can carry embers and start new spot fires.
- Backing Fire – That portion of a fire with slower rates of fire spread and lower intensity, normally moving into the wind and/or down slope.
- Flaming Front – That zone of moving fire where the combustion is primarily flaming.
Vegetation Fire Vocabulary
Useful Firefighting Terms
- Anchor Point – An advantageous location, usually a barrier to the fire spread, from which to start construction of a fire line. The anchor point is used to minimize the chance of being flanked by the fire while a line is being constructed.
- Control Line – An inclusive term for all constructed or natural barriers and treated fire edges used to contain a fire.
- Fireline – The part of a containment or control line that is scraped or dug to mineral soil.
- Mop-Up – Extinguishing or removing burning material near control lines, and trenching logs to prevent rolling after an area has burned, to make a fire safe, or to reduce residual smoke.
- Contained – The status of a wildfire suppression action signifying that a control line has been completed around the fire, and any associated spot fires, which can reasonably be expected to stop the fire’s spread.
- Controlled – The completion of control line around a fire, any spot fires, and any interior islands to be saved. Burn out any unburned area adjacent to the fire side of the control lines. Cool down all
hot spots that are immediate threats to the control line, until the lines can reasonably be expected to hold under foreseeable conditions.
- Green – The area of unburned fuels next to the involved area is called the green.
- Black – The area opposite the green, it is the area in which the fire has consumed or “blackened” the fuels.
- Direct Attack – Is action taken directly against thermals at its edge or closely parallel to it. It is possible to mount both a direct and indirect attack on the same fire.
- Indirect Attack – Is used at varying distances from the advancing fire. Starting at an anchor point, a line is constructed some distance from the fire’s edge and the unburned intervening fuel is
burned out. This method is generally used against fires that are too hot, too fast, or too big for a direct attack.
- Running Attack – Use of a Type 3 Brush Fire Engine’s unique pumping water capability while in motion. A firefighter is walking near the apparatus with a small hose line quickly knocking down the edge of a fire.
- 0-4’ Firefighters can battle safely.
- 4x the height of flames (distance you should be away from)
- 10’ flame height = 40’ away
- 20’ flame height = 80’ away
- 50’ flame height = 200’ away
Santa Barbara County Fire Vegetation Response
First Alarm (High Fire Season)
- 4 Engines
- 2 Dozers
- 1 Water Tender
- 1 Battalion Chief
- 1 Helicopter
- 2 Hand Crews
- 1 Air Attack
- 2 Air Tankers
- 4 Engines
- 2 Dozers
- 1 Water Tender
- 1 Battalion Chief
- 1 Division Chief
- 1 Safety Officer
- 1 PIO
- 1 Helicopter
- 2 Hand Crews
- 1 Air Attack
- 2 Air Tankers
Additional resources will also respond accordingly or can be ordered by the Incident Commander.
Vegetation Fire Science
Topography Influences Fire
- Aspect – The aspect is the direction a slope is facing. (Its exposure in relation to the sun) On the South Coast of Santa Barbara County, the Santa Ynez Mountain Range is the only one in California with a true east-west direction, which means that the front country side of the range is exposed to direct sunlight throughout the day, unlike other ranges in Southern California. This has played a significant role in large wildfires on the South Coast through more exposure to higher temperatures, lower humidity, and lower fuel moisture. A north facing aspect will have less fire activity than a south facing slope.
- Slope – The amount or degree of incline of a hillside (a steep slope). Fire burns more rapidly uphill than downhill. The steeper the slope, the faster the fire burns. The reason is that the fuels above are brought into closer contact with upward moving flames, and conduction/radiant heat helps the fuel catch fire more easily and quickly. The position of the fire in relation to the topography is a major factor in the resulting fire behavior. A fire on relatively level ground (like the Santa Ynez Valley floor) is primarily influenced by fuels and wind.
- Terrain – Certain topographic features influence the wind speed and direction.
- Box Canyon – Fires starting near the base of a box canyon and/or a narrow canyon may react similarly to a fire in a wood-burning stove or fireplace. Air will be drawn in from the canyon bottom creating
very strong upslope drafts with rapid fire spread; also known as the chimney affect. This can result in extreme fire behavior.
- Ridges – Fires burning along lateral ridges may change direction when they reach a point where the ridge drops off into a canyon.
- Saddle – Wind blowing through a saddle or pass in a mountain range can increase in speed as it passes through the constricted area and spreads out on the downwind side.
- Barriers – Any obstruction to the spread of fire. Natural barriers include; rivers, lakes, rocks. Man-made barriers are roads, highways, reservoirs, constructed fireline, etc…
- Danger – Fire burns 10-16 times faster up hill due to pre-heating and radiant heat. The worst place to be covering a fire is from above, looking down, and not to have a safe zone/exit plan.
Wind Effects On Fire
- Wind increases the supply of oxygen to the fire.
- Determines the direction of spread
- Increases the drying of fuels
- Carries sparks ahead of fire and creates spotting
Before The Fire
Every spring, mailers are sent to residents that live in the urban-wildland interface areas of Santa Barbara County. It describes the 100’ zone required by California law* and how residents should keep their homes safe by giving ﬁreﬁghters a chance to save them. It also gives safety tips for dealing with vegetation ﬁres, and the Ready! Set! Go! program.
* PRC 4291 for State Responsibility Areas (SRA) * County Code Chapter 15, Section 4908 for Local Responsibility Areas (LRA)
Covering Vegetation Fires
In Southern California, as with much of the West, wildﬁres used to be referenced into a season, but not any longer. Bone-dry vegetation that hasn’t burned in some places for decades have made ﬁre authorities rethink the label. For Southern California, ﬁre season is considered year-round for the crews that battle the ﬂames. The only discernible difference is the amount of resources that respond to the ﬁre at different times during the year.
As the green grasses of spring dry out by May, the height of the wildﬁre season begins and lasts until enough measurable rain has fallen in the early winter to downgrade the ever-present threat.
In Southern California, October is usually the hottest month of the year, and with it comes the infamous Sundowner and Santa Ana Winds. These highly localized winds originating in the desert bring with them extremely strong, sustained, down-canyon gusts that can drive a ﬁre without a chance of it being stopped. This, coupled with high temperatures and low humidity, create the perfect recipe for a major wildﬁre that has become an all-too familiar sight. With the building of increasing number of homes closer and closer to the urban-wildland interface, the threat of loss of property and life becomes more probable.
Wildﬁres will occur every year. Some will be snuffed out by the initial assignment, and others will become major conﬂagrations that could take months to put out. This is a certainty, but there are some things that you can do, as a photojournalist, to cover a wildﬁre aggressively, but providing for your safety ﬁrst.
The ﬁrst thing you should do is talk with your local ﬁre agency about the threat. They know where the areas are that are more concerning to them than others. By talking to them, not only do you now know the problem areas, but the ﬁre crews will be able to recognize you as a professional photojournalist and not have to concern themselves with the person with the camera on the scene. I have gotten past many checkpoints when others have not simply because the ﬁreﬁghter recognizes me.
Now that you know the problem areas, you should familiarize yourself with those areas. When you have some time, drive the roads so that you know the ways in and out of the area. Practically everyone has a GPS in their car now, but you still need to know the layout of the land. Don’t bet your life on a GPS. Look for low-lying landmarks that will be seen when the smoke cuts into visibility. Drive them at night also. Fireﬁghters utilize the concept of safety zones. These are areas large enough to park a vehicle and be safe from a wildland ﬁre moving through the area. As you drive through your area, make a mental note of large parking lots, cleared areas, and/or open-area parks. If you feel unsafe at any point, you’ll want to take refuge in one of these areas.
It would also be prudent to keep your gas tank above 1/2. You don’t want to be out at the ﬁre and be low on fuel. With earthquakes always a potential, California media should always keep their tank above 1/2. When the earth shakes, the gas stations close due to their computer systems. You don’t want to miss the shot or put yourself in danger because you’re driving around looking for fuel.
You should have a complete set of ﬂame-resistant Nomex brand ﬁre ﬁghting clothing, and a good pair of thick-soled leather ankle-high boots. Nylon hiking boots aren’t ideal because the high heat can melt the shoe as you walk across the burned area. A helmet would be your best protection, but any hat will help aid in the prevention of heat absorption through the head. A light-colored helmetwill help guard against heat related illnesses. A ﬂame-resistant long-sleeved shirt and pair of pants along with the boots and helmet will set you back about $300. I picked up a young student photographer walking in the middle of the ﬁre zone wearing shorts, a t-shirt and ﬂip ﬂops. I loaned him my other set of Nomex clothing and kept him with me until I left the ﬁre zone.
In addition to the clothing, a ﬁre-service shelter is strongly recommended, however they aren’t cheap, about $300-and they are one time usage- only as a last resort. If you make the purchase, be sure to have your shelter with you if you are out of your car. When driving, keep your shelter in the car. Don’t lock it in the trunk where you may not be able to get to it when you really need it. Depending on your relationship with your local ﬁre agency, ask if you can watch one of their videos on how to deploy and use a ﬁre shelter.
Additionally, provide plenty of water or Gatorade for yourself through the use of a camelback or extra bottles in your vehicle along with some PowerBars. You may be on the lines for an extended period of time. You will dehydrate quickly and heat-stroke is a real concern while walking the ﬁre lines. It’s a good idea also to provide eye protection & carry a tiny bottle of Visine to clean your eyes, and have on hand a couple of bandanas and/or a mask that will help with acrid smoke you will encounter.
Other personal safety items you should include is a small ﬁrst-aid kit for cuts and scrapes, along with a ﬂashlight. Be mindful of ever-present rattlesnakes also.
A radio scanner will be an invaluable tool that will not only help you get the photos by knowing where the ﬁreﬁghters are working, and aircraft are making drops, but also keep you informed of any dangers being encountered by the forces battling the blaze.
During a major incident, such as in a National Forest, you will be required to check in at the base camp and there you will be outﬁtted with the appropriate ﬂame resistant gear. You will then be escorted into the ﬁre area with a qualiﬁed ﬁre-media liaison.
Now that your personal safety is addressed, you should get to know a little about the ﬁre you’re covering-safely.
Remember that wildﬁres are fast moving and extremely dangerous. Fireﬁghters have 10 standing orders and 18 watch-out situations they must always be aware of when battling a brush ﬁre and these have been modiﬁed for the photojournalist.
Ten Standing Orders
- Keep informed on ﬁre weather conditions and forecasts.
- Know what your ﬁre is doing at all times.
- Base all actions on current and expected behavior of the ﬁre.
- Identify escape routes and safety zones and make them known
- Post a lookout when possible danger.
- Be alert. Keep calm. Think clearly. Act decisively.
- Maintain communications with your co-workers.
- When ﬁre crews give you instructions, make sure they are understood. Always follow these instructions.
- Maintain control of the people you are with at all times.
- Be aggressive in your photographing of wildﬁre, having provided for safety ﬁrst.
Eighteen Watch-Out Situations
- Fire not sized up properly.
- Fire burning in an area you have not seen in daylight.
- Safety zones and escape routes not identiﬁed.
- Unfamiliar with weather and local factors inﬂuencing ﬁre behavior.
- No knowledge of hazards present. (wires down, 5 gal propane tanks, etc)
- Be aware of aircraft making drops.
- Be aware of ﬂame length, type of fuel burning, direction and speed of wind.
- Positioned mid-slope of ﬁre.
- Walking downhill to ﬁre. Remember ﬁre burns 4x faster up hill.
- Positioning yourself at the front or head of the ﬁre.
- Unburned fuel between you and the ﬁre.
- Cannot see main ﬁre, not in contact with anyone who can.
- On a hillside where rolling material can ignite fuel below.
- Weather is getting hotter and drier.
- Wind increases and/or changes direction.
- Getting frequent spot ﬁres.
- Terrain and fuel make escape to safety zones difﬁcult.
- Do not block the roadway with your vehicle.
What Info SBC Will And Will Not Release
Only the following information shall be provided to the media.
Incident type and location, call time, who is affected, cause, duration of incident, resources that responded, jurisdiction, cooperating agencies, and current situation.
Information concerning fire investigations will be released once the investigation is complete. The outcome of the investigation will be released via a news release.
SBCFD will not release any information concerning an ongoing investigation.
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) guaratees privacy of individuals’ medical records. No health and or medical information can be released without the patient’s written concent.
Reasons For Denying Access To The Media
Types Of Engines
Types Of Fixed-Wing Aircraft and Helicopters
OV 10A “Bronco”
Beechcraft King Air 200
AH-1 Firewatch “Cobra”
Siikorsky S-64 “Skycrane”
Sikorsky S-70 “Firehawk”
Eurocopter AS332L “Super Puma”
Boeing-Vertol 107 “Vertol”
Boeing 234 “Chinook”
UH-1H “Super Huey”
Bell 205 A++
Boeing CH-46 “Sea Knight”
SBC Radio Channels
Command Channel Frequency
Tactical Channel Frequency
Incident Management Team (IMT)
Santa Barbara County is unique in that it has established a IMT-3 team. With cooperation from all of the fire agencies in the county along with the SB County Sheriff and California Highway Patrol. It is an “All-Risk” Type-3 Team and can respond and manage any incident such as a hazardous materials spill or vegetation fire
Type 3: State or Metropolitan Area Level
A standing team of trained personnel from different departments, organizations, agencies, and jurisdictions within a state or DHS Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) region, activated to support incident management at incidents that extend beyond one operational period. Type-3 IMTs will respond throughout the state or large portions of the state, depending upon State-speciﬁc laws, policies, and regulations.
Type 2: National and State Level
A federally or state-certiﬁed team; has less training, stafﬁng and experience than Type-1 IMTs, and is typically used on smaller scale national or state incidents. There are thirty-ﬁve Type-2 IMTs currently in existence, and operate through interagency cooperation of federal, state and local land and emergency management agencies.
Type 1: National and State Level
A federally or state-certiﬁed team; is the most robust IMT with the most training and experience. Sixteen Type-1 IMTs are now in existence, and operate through interagency cooperation of federal, state and local land and emergency management agencies.
An incident management team consists of ﬁve subsystems as follows:
- Incident command system (ICS) – an on-scene structure of management-level positions suitable for managing any incident;
- Training – including needs identiﬁcation, development, and delivery of training courses;
- Qualiﬁcations and certiﬁcation – the United States has national standards for qualiﬁcations and certiﬁcation for ICS positions;
- Publications management – the development, control, sourcing, and distribution of National Incident Management System (NIMS) publications provided by the National Wildﬁre Coordinating Group (NWCG); and
- Supporting technology and systems – technology and materials used to support an emergency response, such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS), orthophoto mapping, National Fire Danger Rating System, remote automatic weather stations, automatic lightning detection systems, infrared technology, and communications.