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150,000 Acres Reopened to Public as Fire Hazard Abates : Safety: Recent rains are given credit for the decision to allow campers, nature lovers and others to again roam backcountry tracts closed since May 15 due to dry vegetation.


Thanks to the recent rains, officials have reopened more than 150,000 acres of wild lands this year that had been closed to recreation and camping because of an extreme fire hazard, county fire officials said.

Bird-watchers, mountain bike riders and other nature lovers can now return to the backcountry for the first time since May 15.

"Generally, they are pretty safe. The potential for fire is reduced enough," said Dan Young, spokesman for the Orange County Fire Department. "Even if we get no rain for the next six to eight weeks, we should still be OK."

San Clemente and Brea have also reopened their significant city wild lands.

The hazard posed by parched brush and trees had forced closure of large tracts of eastern Orange County and Laguna Canyon to recreation for the past eight months. The wild lands are under the protection of the county and neighboring city fire departments and are both publicly and privately owned. Parts of these lands serve as both a giant recreation playground and home to at least 10,000 residents.

Fire season does not apply to state and federal parks, such as Cleveland National Forest, which are required to have on-site staffing, visitor registration and fire prevention programs.

"Generally, the state parks stay open," said Doug Allen, division chief for the California Department of Forestry, which looks after those parks. "There are rangers at the parks, and camping areas have fire rings. Because of that, they are relatively safe, actually."

Though six years of drought have made for significantly longer fire seasons, county officials expressed relief that this season had been a relatively uneventful one--at least by their standards. There were almost 200 summer brush fires, but just two exceeded 1 acre.

"People tend to drop their guard when fire conditions are said to be safe," Allen said. "But particularly in Southern California, we have to be aware of the problem 12 months of the year."

County officials declared the fire season closed Jan. 10, two weeks earlier than in 1991, after more than 2 inches of rain fell in the new year.

Fires are still possible, but new growth fueled by the rain makes it less likely that flames will rage through thickets of dead grass and shrubs, officials said.

Young said fire can travel along dry undergrowth at up to 30 m.p.h.--faster than a firetruck can drive through it. The new green growth burns slower and will limit spreading fires.

The rule governing campfires, one of the prime causes of brush fires, remains in effect: Fires must be contained within an existing fire ring with a clearance of brush around it.

Cars have catalytic converters that, when heated, can spark a wilderness fire.

"People still have to be smart," Young said. "It is just too easy for people to be unsafe."

Despite the welcome reprieve, Young warned that it is just a matter of time before the areas are closed again--possibly as early as spring.

"By April we will be preparing to identify areas to close," he said. "So, I guess people should get out there and use the areas while they can."

Officials will consider reopening fire season when Santa Ana winds that howl across the hilly ranges return to dry out the vegetation.

"If we get days of Santa Ana winds, they will dry everything out," Allen said. "And then we will be right back where we started."

Rainfall in Inches

Santa Ana Tustin Dec./Jan. 4.88 4.20 normal rainfall Dec. '90/Jan. '91 1.48 1.45 total rainfall Dec. '91/Jan. '92 3.13 3.49 rainfall to date

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