According to Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Wallace, a perfect storm of conditions led to the blaze. Fuel, aridity, steep terrain, limited access and near hurricane-strength winds all played into the combustible mix.
“This fire, once it started, was going to happen,” Wallace said.
So fierce and fast moving was the blaze that for the first few hours, the fire department’s only hope was to evacuate residents with the help of law enforcement and Santa Barbara County Search & Rescue volunteers while trying to make a stand against the flames. Attempts to box in the fire were thwarted by embers hurled by gale-force gusts. Late that Thursday, with the help of many out-of town strike teams, firefighters finally were able to adopt a more offensive stance against the blaze.
Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Wallace said perilous night-time flights by water-dropping helicopters helped firefighters gain the upper hand in his community.
A critical element, said Wallace, was the deployment of night-flying firefighting helicopters at the peak of the fire. Although it was extremely dangerous, with weather conditions, darkness, treacherous topography and power lines, the aircraft made more than 800 sorties from a staging area at Santa Barbara Junior High.
While ultimately grateful to the firefighters and law enforcement for their heroism, many residents remained frustrated by things they thought could have been handled better, as well as unforeseen difficulties presented by the disaster.
Some reported getting reverse 9-1-1 calls at 10 p.m., hours after the Tea Fire had eaten through their neighborhood. Others claimed they did not see any fire engines in their neighborhoods during their evacuations. Traffic was another concern for the semi-rural community, as neighbors reported difficulties getting away in the general confusion, smoke and ash.
For the Montecito Fire Department, there were several lessons learned, as well: better staging in the brush-heavy, mountainous terrain, better communication.
“We don’t have a common radio frequency for the front country,” Wallace said of an element on which the department is currently working.
As for the too-late reverse 9-1-1 calls, tied-up or damaged phone lines were to blame: too many calls from concerned family and friends created a digital traffic jam for cell-phone users while downed communication lines made it impossible for other calls to reach homes.
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