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Slow Burn

Weather Lowers Toll of Brush Fire Season


This article is about the current brush fire season, which formally ends Nov. 30, just eight days from now.

If you are superstitious, you might want to have a piece of wood nearby to knock on. If you believe that a baseball announcer can jinx a no-hitter by mentioning it, you might not want to read this article at all.

That's because the Los Angeles area has gotten through the current season, so far, without one major brush fire. Those fires that have sprung up have caused only minor damage, far less than the norm.

"I cannot remember there being this few brush fires in a year," said Capt. Paul Quagliata of the Los Angeles Fire Department, "and I have lived right here in the San Fernando Valley for 45 years."

Indeed, Quagliata, who has spent 22 of those years with the department and currently oversees its brush clearance program, could recall only one significant brush fire within city limits this season. And its origins were a bit embarrassing.

"We had a minor fire in the Encino reservoir area that got to a couple acres of brush," he said. "It was accidental. A worker doing some clearance work hit a rock with a metal blade and there was a spark."

That worker was one of several in the area clearing brush under a contract issued by the Fire Department itself.

"They knew who to call as soon as it happened," Quagliata said. "We got up there and put it out before there was any big problem."

That ironic tale might turn out to be the most notable brush fire story of the season.

"It has been a very slow year and I'm not complaining," said Capt. Steve Valenzuela of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, which serves unincorporated areas and several cities other than Los Angeles.

1998 has been extremely "slow," even compared to other years with relatively little brush fire activity. For example, county Fire Department statistics for 1994 show that 6,897 acres were lost to brush fires in the areas it serves. In 1995, the total was 6,420 acres.

But the total so far this year is only 1,533 acres.

On the other end of the scale, the firestorm that hit the Malibu-Calabasas area in November 1993 destroyed more than 16,000 acres by itself and pushed that year's total to 30,664. And the devastating Calabasas fire of October 1996 blackened almost 14,000 acres, which helped boost that year's total to 38,462.

Why has this been such a fire-free year?

"The weather has been our friend," Valenzuela said.

First came the rains of El Nino, which gave a badly needed boost to the moisture level in plants.

Before those rains, the vegetation moisture level as measured by the county Fire Department was 57%. "That was the lowest since 1981 when we began measuring," Valenzuela said. A reading under 60%, he explained, is considered critical.

But this month, readings have been as high as 73%.

The other major factor in keeping the fires at bay was a dearth of the hot, dry Santa Ana winds that usually hit the area at this time of year.

"It was just the luck of the weather draw," said meteorologist Jeff House of WeatherData Inc., which supplies weather information to The Times. "The atmospheric patterns needed for a classic Santa Ana condition almost never occurred."

The two parts of that pattern are a high pressure system over the Great Basin--an area that includes parts of eastern California, Nevada and Utah--and a jet stream flow out of the Pacific Northwest.

"You've been pretty close several times," House said, "but they almost never happened at the same time."

The only substantial Santa Ana wind condition of the season hit the Los Angeles area Oct. 5, and it lapsed after a couple of days. "It takes sustained Santa Ana winds for several days to make the vegetation bone dry," House said. "That didn't happen."

The city Fire Department considers Nov. 30 the end of the critical fire season, and House thinks that's appropriate. "You can get Santa Anas in December, but usually by then temperatures are cool enough to keep the vegetation from drying up," he said. "You can get the winds in January, but by then you usually have some rain to cancel out the effects."

Fire officials and House cautioned against being overly optimistic, however. "I think you will escape this season in pretty good shape," House said, "but California weather has its own tricks. It could still heat up in December."

"Heavy Santa Anas for a few days in a row could still dry out the heavier fuels--the logs and trees," Valenzuela said. "I'm still holding my breath."

If the fires should come, officials said the relatively light season has not dulled firefighters' skills. The county department, for example, has had crews fly its specially equipped Firehawk helicopter almost every day on drills.

Those skills might be badly needed as soon as next year.

"Historically, it's the year after a big rain that can be the most dangerous," Valenzuela said. "It takes that long for all the new growth brought on by the rains to dry out."

The fact that we have had so few fires in 1998 could even contribute to a far worse 1999 season.

"Not much of all that new growth has been burned off by fires this year," said Quagliata. "By next year, we could be sitting on a tinderbox."

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