Big wildfires are a like a bad car wreck. You really can’t know what it’s like unless you’ve actually lived through one.

And if you’re a lucky survivor of either event, we thought you might appreciate the perspective of folks who have been there, done that with wildfires, and definitely do not want to go through it again.

We use this space, often, to warn readers about the true horror of a big fire, including frequent requests not to be the person who causes of one of those monsters, and how to prepare for a worst-case scenario.

The sad fact is that the overwhelming majority of California and the Central Coast’s big wildfires are caused by humans. We have met the enemy and it is, indeed, us.

Today’s editorial is all about sharing the stories of your friends and neighbors, and their thoughts and fears about wildfires, all of which collectively paint a crucially important picture.

Lest this be perceived as alarmist, we will say up front that in the Santa Maria Valley, the risk of a major wildfire is relatively small. We are surrounded by carefully-tended fields used for growing good things to eat. That circumstance and the general geography insulate many of us from the worst fire threats. The Valley’s wildfire problem is that there are so few routes to use in an escape.

But just about everywhere else in Santa Barbara County the risk is extreme, especially for down-slope locations. 

Possibly the worst places are some of the most expensive communities in which to live. Montecito is a national gem, but one that suffered catastrophe in the Thomas fire, followed by heavy winter rains and mudslides that cut through the village, killing nearly two dozen people.

The Painted Cave fire in the early 1990s incinerated more than 500 homes on the slopes rising from the ocean to San Marcos Pass. Today, those hills are once again filled with homes, and just as vulnerable to a Sundowner-driven wildfire as they were in June 1990.

That fact demonstrates part of California’s wildfire problem — woodlands being overtaken by people, houses with dandy landscaping and commercial areas. Just as folks in the Midwest clamor to buy riverside property before the flooding, then rebuild after, Californians treasure our little slice of residential heaven, often with little or no concern for the risks their environment poses.

Because of those risks, and especially with regard to wildfires, our major self-defense responsibility as Central Coast residents is to educate ourselves on the whys and hows of wildfires, make preparations necessary for survival and escape. In isolated rural areas where evacuation could be difficult, defensible space is critical, and a fire shelter below ground with an insulated door and stocked with water can be a lifesaver.

As was mentioned in one of the stories in our wildfire series that concludes in today's paper, Santa Barbara County has had so many fires over the years that firefighters rushed in from other areas to help fight the biggest ones joke it should be renamed Wildfire County.

Appropriate, perhaps, but probably not something about which jokes should be made. The fact is that, while our series focused on this region, a huge percentage of California is at great risk of wildfires.

The bottom line was captured in the title of our series: “Wildfire County — planning for the next big blaze.”

Plan and be ready, because it will happen.

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