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Fire Ants Take the Fun Out of the Backyard

December 05, 1998|ESTHER SCHRADER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You want to live in California for the great outdoors, the great parks, the great backyard of your suburban home where you can roughhouse with your kids on a lawn still green in December.

You don't want to be told a tiny red ant poses a threat to all that.

Which is why a six-legged newcomer to Southern California, a mandibular creature from South America with a venom that can kill, is not being greeted with open arms.

"I can't believe they're out here. I thought I'd left all that behind," said Chris Newman, who moved to California 10 years ago from Texas, where the imported red fire ant has long been a painful part of life.

Now Newman lives about 20 yards from a field near Trabuco Canyon that state agriculture officials say has been colonized by millions of the aggressive pests.

Fighting them will be nasty, brutish and time-consuming.

Worse, perhaps, the war may be unwinnable. And, if the experiences of other states hold here, the ants may take a bite out of the Southland's celebrated outdoor lifestyle.

"Let's put it this way: If you have fire ants in your backyard, are you going to put a crawling baby on the ground?" said Robert Dowell, the chief entomologist for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

"What you find is these ants eliminate the use of your yards for kids to play in. You don't have to go any further than that to have a real change in lifestyle."

In 11 Southern states where the fight against the fire ant is a running battle, children are warned never to play outdoors without shoes on. Campers sprinkle campsites with pesticide before pitching their tents. Boaters can't get into their craft without brushing off the ants that crowd shorelines. Airport runway lights suddenly go dim when the ants take up residence inside their wiring.

And--in the worst cases--people with a severe allergy to the ant venom have died after inadvertently stepping on mounds and being swarmed by thousands of the territorial insects.

"I don't go outside barefoot. Oh no, I can't do that," said Bill Rovira, 83, an Austin, Texas, retiree who could teach worried Californians why the scope of the fire ant menace belies the ant's size.

Rovira came close to death last July when he stepped on a fire ant mound in his backyard that was obscured beneath a pile of leaves.

Before he knew what had happened he had been stung by hundreds of the ants.

Allergic to the ants like some people are allergic to bee or wasp stings, he swelled up over much of his body before he was saved by treatments at a local hospital.

"I told my wife that she should call [paramedics] because I'm dying," Rovira said. "I get allergy injections now, but I still get stung all the time. There's a battle going on here against these things, and I'm a dedicated enemy."

There is no indication that the ant infestation in California approaches that in the South, where fire ants have killed off most other ant species and have changed human lifestyles.

In a 30-square-mile area across three Southern California counties surveyed so far, ant experts have found more than 100 mounds, many 3 to 4 years old. That area alone, they say, probably contains thousands more.

Already two Orange County nurseries and an Indio turf farm infested with the ants are under state quarantine. Orchard owners are battling isolated outbreaks in Kern, Fresno and Stanislaus counties. State officials are printing fliers they plan to distribute to residents door-to-door to warn of the dangers the venomous ants pose to young children and pets.

Suppressing the ant colonies may mean dropping thousands of pounds of granular insecticides from helicopters or planes in Orange and Los Angeles counties.

Even at that, today's children will be teenagers by the time the multimillion-dollar battle has been played out. And there are no guarantees that the ants, whose Latin species name means "invincible," can be wiped out.

Hundreds of residents already are voicing their fears to public health officials.

"I saw these little red flags going up in the field and I didn't know what they were," said Curt Yoder, whose Trabuco Canyon home is a block away from a field infested with the ants. "It's creepy. I'm staying away if I see them."

What makes fire ants more insidious than other perilous pests is their love for environments like backyards.

Moisture loving, the ants flock to irrigated lawns, parks and highway medians. The broken ground of new developments provides natural spots for the ants to build their mounds, some of which reach the size of basketballs.

For reasons scientists do not understand, the ants are attracted to electrical fields. In states where the ants are a persistent problem, they frequently short-circuit airport lights, air conditioners and traffic signals.

The ants, which eat most organic matter, also do more than $1 billion in crop damage per year, more than any other pest in the South.

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