The scorching of 325 acres last week in Orange County's canyon country may be a harbinger of bigger blazes ahead, according to fire officials who pointed Friday to a 20% increase in wildfires this season amid especially dry brush conditions.
"It's a bad fire season, a dangerous one," said Capt. Scott Brown of the Orange County Fire Authority. "This fire should be a reminder to people living in a fire-prone area that these fires do occur and that they will continue to be a threat."
The fire that burned Tuesday in Portola Hills and the Cleveland National Forest was knocked down by firefighters before it could reach the homes and ranches that dot the rugged canyon area, but as fire season advances--and the Santa Ana winds arrive--there may be larger threats to fight back, officials said.
Much of the concern is driven by the tinder-like conditions of brush. For the first time since 1877, Southern California this year went through an entire March and April with no measurable rain, causing the "browning up" of brush, according to Orange County Battalion Chief Herb Jewell.
The dry conditions provide fuel for fires, and, if the other weather conditions fall into place, there may be major threats on the horizon, said Jewell, who leads wildfire defense operations for the county fire agency.
In May, survey teams throughout Orange County found that levels of dry and dead brush had reached what is usually seen in October--an alarming buildup of fuel that "widens the window" of fire risk, Jewell said.
"The opportunity for ignition is greater than in past years," Jewell said. "Given that, if we have a particular day with low humidity, high winds and high temperatures--that's when we're going to have problems."
So far this season, there have been three notable wildfires in Orange County--the Santiago Canyon fire on Sept. 2, and the blazes in the Crystal Cove area on Aug. 6 and Coto de Caza on May 29. No homes or lives were lost in any of those fires.
County firefighters have also been called out almost daily this season for smaller brush fires, and at a rate 20% higher than 1996, fire officials said.
One obvious reason is heat: Orange County has been baking in high temperatures, which ratchet up the fire risk. On Friday, for instance, temperatures hovered near or above 100 degrees in local rural and canyon areas, Brown said.
The other two weather factors--low humidity level and wind--have been kinder so far this fire season, although that will almost certainly change in the months to come, Brown said.
"All of those major fires [this season] occurred when we haven't seen the wind activity that we can experience in October and November," Brown said, adding that low humidity with raging, hot winds and the current dry brush levels could be "a deadly combination."
Early last week, high humidity both helped and hampered firefighting efforts against the Santiago Canyon blaze, which threatened the Modjeska community. The moist air dampened brush, but it also created grueling work conditions for firefighters tramping through smoke and difficult terrain. "It was brutal out there," Brown said.
Residents who live in canyon areas and communities bordering on county wild lands should protect their homes from the threat of fire by taking steps such as clearing away brush and keeping their roofs clear of leaves and debris, Brown said. Anyone seeking more information on precautions can call the community and education office at the Orange County Fire Authority at (714) 744-0496.