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Fire Danger Called Worst in 32 Years

August 06, 1987|ROBERT D. DAVILA | Times Staff Writer

A fire this week in Angeles National Forest renewed concern about the dangerously dry hills above Glendale and La Canada Flintridge, where thousands of acres of dead brush pose the greatest risk of a major blaze in years, experts say.

Chaparral blanketing the San Gabriel, Verdugo and San Rafael ranges is the driest since Los Angeles County firefighters began monitoring it in 1979, fire officials said. Beckley and Winery canyons, which come down from the San Gabriel Mountains, and Topanga Canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains are the two most seriously dry brush areas in the county, they said.

County Fire Capt. Scott Franklin and Dr. Philip Riggan of the U.S. Forest Service recently toured the upper canyon areas, which provided a smoggy but panoramic view of La Canada Flintridge. Pointing to a map of county areas infested with a mysterious fungus that kills brush, Franklin noted all the hills surrounding the city are particularly susceptible to fire.

"I've been here 32 years, and this is the worst it's been," Franklin said. "We've got a serious problem here."

Spokesman Vince Marzo of the Los Angeles Fire Department echoed Franklin's concern. "Dry brush is a continual problem, but this is the worst I've seen in eight or nine years," he said.

25 Acres Burned

The first major fire near La Canada Flintridge this summer burned about 25 acres Monday four miles north in the Angeles forest. A car that plunged more than 300 feet off Angeles Crest Highway exploded and sparked the blaze about 8 a.m. two miles north of an Angeles Crest ranger station. A 12-mile stretch of the highway north of Greenridge Drive was closed until 10 p.m. Monday.

Officer Richard Henry of the California Highway Patrol said no body or footprints were found at the site. Officers were seeking the car's registered owner, Robert S. Hamashige, 55, of Fontana. Hamashige has not been seen since Sunday, a CHP officer said.

As many as 330 firefighters from the county and Pasadena fire departments, the state Department of Forestry and the U. S. Forest Service battled the blaze. No homes or buildings were threatened, and the fire was extinguished by 6 a.m. Tuesday, Forest Service spokesman Robert Brady said. Five firefighters suffered minor injuries, he said.

Favorable Conditions

Greener vegetation and a light wind enabled firefighters to contain flames to the north side of a ridge less than a quarter mile north of Winery Canyon, Franklin said. The hill overlooks La Canada Flintridge to the south.

"If the winds had taken it over the ridge, the fire could have spread down the canyons to Foothill Boulevard in no time," the captain said.

In January, 1984, a fire that swept out of Winery Canyon destroyed 11 homes north of Foothill Boulevard. Flames threatened to jump across the road and consume as many as 500 more, but the the wind and the fire changed direction.

Since that fire, firefighters have planned to burn about 300 acres of dry brush near the top of the canyons to create a natural firebreak that would protect as many as 500 homes below. But unfavorable weather and a temporary lack of liability insurance have held up the controlled burns, and none is planned until spring.

Until then, La Canada Flintridge City Manager Don Otterman said, "We're keeping our fingers crossed. But we're definitely worried about it."

County firefighters have formed smaller firebreaks in lower canyon areas, removing dead brush by hand. Meanwhile, officials are warning residents to clear their property of dry shrubs and to plant fire-resistant vegetation.

Fires spread more quickly and burn hotter when fueled by extremely dry brush, experts said. They measure the moisture in brush samples by weighing them, drying them and then weighing them again.

Ceanothus, also called mountain lilac, normally has enough moisture to weigh twice what it would when dried out; in other words, its moisture is equal to 100% of its dry weight. The shrub, one of the most common types of mountain chaparral, is considered critically dry when its moisture content is 60%.

Moisture levels in ceanothus covering the hills above La Canada Flintridge are down to 50%, the lowest recorded since measurements began in 1979, Riggan said.

The severely dry vegetation results from a combination of natural and urban factors, forestry and fire officials said.

Although temperatures generally are lower than usual this year, so is rainfall. Normal annual precipitation is 14.85 inches, and Los Angeles County has received only 3.68 inches so far this year, according to the National Weather Service. Although 18 inches fell last year, 1984 and 1985 each brought slightly less than nine inches.

The dry period that began in 1984 followed six years of near- or above-average rainfall, during which the chaparral grew tall and abundant. The dramatic climate change has weakened the brush, experts said.

Less Resistant to Smog

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