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El Nino's Rains Will Add Fuel to Any Future Fires

June 17, 1998|STEVE CARNEY

Before it left Orange County, El Nino sowed the seeds for natural disaster--it increased the danger of brush fires.

This year's record rainfall caused a burst of growth among the grasses and other vegetation that blanket hillsides from Yorba Linda to San Clemente, fire officials say. And when summer temperatures, low humidity and Santa Ana winds dry out those plants, the county will be covered in tinder.

"We never predict anything, but all signs point to this being the year of the grass fire," said Karen Terrill, spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "There's just an incredible grass crop in parts of the state."

"We try to warn people about grass fires because they're so dangerous. People have a tendency to underestimate them," she said. "A grass fire can move as fast as the wind can blow."

To decrease the danger, the Orange County Fire Authority is setting the driest, most dangerous wilderness areas off-limits to the public starting today, the start of the 1998 fire season.

"We want everybody to start shifting their focus from El Nino to the months ahead," Fire Authority Capt. Scott Brown said. "Conditions can get so serious that a mere spark can cause a fire."

By closing some wilderness areas to the public, fire officials hope to reduce the likelihood that someone will inadvertently start a blaze. National, state and county parks are not included in the ban.

A thoughtlessly discarded cigarette, a stray bullet striking a rock, a lawn mower blade hitting a stone and a welder's torch have all sparked recent brush fires, Brown said. He warned residents--especially those in fire-prone areas--to start taking precautions now.

Firefighters are especially skittish with the approach of July 4. Police detained two teens in Yorba Linda on Monday after the two started a quarter-acre brush fire while lighting fireworks.

Ironically, it was wet weather that continued to vex firefighters Tuesday. And it had nothing to do with El Nino.

A controlled burn to clear vegetation from 100 acres near Crystal Cove State Park had to be postponed because of the light rain and overcast, Brown said.

The forecast calls for morning clouds and drizzle the rest of this week, with the June gloom burning off by the afternoon, said Wes Etheredge, a meteorologist for WeatherData Inc., which provides forecasts for The Times. But the dry fire season looms.

"From now forward we're going to see normal summertime precipitation and temperature periods," Etheredge said. "You won't see rain until September, typically."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Fire Season

Today marks the beginning of fire season in Orange County. A minute after the clock struck midnight, hazardous fire areas in parts of Orange, Anaheim, Brea, Laguna Beach and unincorporated areas of the county closed to the public. The closure is designed to keep people out of the county's wild land and minimize the risk of arson.

Should fire strike the wild land, firefighters will respond with a variety of equipment. Conquering the fire could take minutes, days or weeks, depending on how big and how quickly it spreads. The equipment:

* Air tankers

Capacity: 2,500 gallons

Air tankers drop retardant, which also contains fertilizer to help reestablish brush.

- Helicopters

Capacity: 360 gallons of water. Can average 4,000 gallons per hour.

- Off-road fire engines

Capacity: 150-500 gallons each. Carry water, foam and a variety of hand tools.

- Water tankers

Capacity: 3,500 gallons

- Fire dozers

Work like bulldozers. They are transported on large trucks and clear a path in the fire.

Also:

- Drip torches.

- Lightweight fire hose.

- Four-wheel-drive patrol units, equipped with a hoist and pump that can carry 150 gallons of water.

Hand Crew

Crews fight fire using chain saws and shovels. Specialized tools--the Pulaski and McLeod--are used to cut brush. Other crews set backfires as containment measures.

Protecting Your Home

- Do not smoke in hazardous fire areas.

- Keep a 10-foot clearance between trees and chimneys.

- Trim limbs from mature trees.

- Provide and maintain a spark arrester on chimney.

- Clear roof of combustible leaves, needles and any other debris.

- Make sure address is clearly visible from the street.

- Clear dry grass, thinning brush and other dead or dying materials.

- Keep grass short.

- Stack firewood at least 30 feet from the house.

- Install protection posts around liquid propane gas tanks and keep a clear space of 10 feet around the posts.

Source: Orange County Fire Authority

Researched by MIMI KO CRUZ / Los Angeles Times

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