High above drought-stricken Lake Cachuma, a Santa Barbara County Fire Department helicopter hums overhead, circling over dried-out lake beds and dehydrated vegetation until it sets down on a swath of brown grass. Two firefighters crouch close to the ship’s underbelly, hooking a nozzle and hose to a tank capable of holding as much as 200 gallons of water for battling wildfires.

Within minutes, the chopper’s tank is full.

“As of today, the start of high fire season, that helicopter will be on response,” County Fire Capt. David Zaniboni said as it flew away.

Monday marked the official start of high fire season in California, and along with scores of other agencies, Santa Barbara County Fire Department officials began retraining crews for the possibility of wildfires sparked in dry conditions.

Entering its fourth year of a historic drought, California’s fire season lasts year-round, Zaniboni said.

The department maintained a moderate fire season throughout most winter months, brought on by dry weather and a lack of rain, Zaniboni said.

But the dry weather is calling for increased staffing for initial calls about two months earlier than usual. Now a helicopter, four engines, two bulldozers, two hand crews, a battalion chief and two air tanks will be made ready when responding to a vegetation fire.

At the Camp One hand crew headquarters tucked deep into Lake Cachuma's recreation area Monday morning, fire officials drilled more than 20 firefighters from Santa Ynez, Orcutt and Goleta on offloading bulldozers, laying hoses and supplying airships with water. Stations are rotating through the camp this month for the refresher course.

“It’s loosening the cobwebs,” said Public Information Officer Mike Eliason, with the county's fire department. “These guys all know what to do.”

A few yards from where the helicopter set down, crews offloaded bulldozers used to create a perimeter around brush fires, uprooting everything in their paths. Firefighters rolled out three of the machines during the Miguelito Fire in 2014 that burned more than 600 acres south of Lompoc.

“It’s like we’re building a road around it (the fire). We’re taking away the fuel source, and you either take away the fuel source or the oxygen,” Fire Equipment Operator Kyle Hill said.

The bulldozers offer more protection to firefighters and hand crews that head out into brush fires with pick axes and shovels, sometimes creating perimeters close enough to the flames that the county fire decals emblazoned on the side of the rig melt away, Hill said.

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“These do the work of 100 guys,” Zaniboni said.

Another team drained a fire engine’s 1,500-gallon water tank into a portable orange reservoir that they just call “the pumpkin.”  

Commissioned anytime there’s a blaze more than five miles from an existing reservoir, helicopters use it to reload their 200-gallon water tanks on the fly.  

Unlike some crews in urban areas that see few blazes, firefighters from the county fire department battle fires year-round and are often loaned out to other agencies throughout the state, Zaniboni said.

Just before training got underway, a cacophony of sirens began ringing on the emergency scanners. The call came in at 10:21 a.m. A driver threw a cigarette out the window at the top of San Marcos Pass, sparking a vegetation fire on Highway 154 and Cielo Road.

Crews of firefighters, just a few minutes from the call, began rushing to their trucks before receiving news that the fire was put out by a passing California Highway Patrol officer.

They headed back to training, preparing for the possibility that the next one might not be extinguished as quickly.

Harold Pierce covers the Santa Ynez Valley as a reporter for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce

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