This year's official fire season began Tuesday with a small brush fire in Meiners Oaks, but fire officials now say that if "June gloom" blankets Ventura County as expected, this might be a mild summer for fires.
Only two months ago, fire officials forecast the worst fire season in years, but a twist in the weather--including a rare June sprinkling of rain around the county Tuesday--could change that outcome.
Heavy brush that grew during last year's El Nino, followed by a dry winter this year, created ideal conditions for major fires in the county's wooded and grassland areas, officials said.
Since then, however, wet weather, minimal heat and a lack of wind has helped moisten the brush.
"The humidity is high enough that it's not going to support a big fire," said Sandi Wells, spokeswoman for the county Fire Department. "We're looking at a late fire season. It's always a good point, though, to [remember] that where we live, the weather could change at any minute."
At least for the foreseeable future, the weather should stay gray, cloudy and on the cool side in the mornings, according to Bruce Rockwell, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.
This so-called June gloom weather pattern is actually a marine layer of low clouds and fog near the coast that occurs when cool water meets warm air.
In the past three years in Ventura County, brush fires have damaged 12,000 to 13,000 acres, a fairly typical amount and far below this decade's high of 85,000 total acres scorched during the summer of 1993, Wells said.
Fire season runs until after the beginning of the winter rainy season.
Most of last year's larger fires were caused by welders working on metal fences, setting off sparks that ignited dry grass.
That was also the case with Tuesday's 3-acre fire in Meiners Oaks, which coincided with the start of the fire season.
"It's kind of remarkable," said Capt. Norm Plott, whose Station 22 in Ojai was responsible for extinguishing the grass fire after four hours. "Here it is the opening of the fire season, and we get our first fire the same day."
A man grinding on a metal fence post started a spot fire at 10:15 a.m. that gradually spread from his home in the 1000 block of Rancho Drive. He had trimmed the weeds in the area to make sure there was no brush within 150 feet of his home, but the fire spread to adjacent grassland when winds blew from the southwest.
Fire officials' top recommendation for avoiding such fires is weed abatement, which 99% of county residents complied with by Tuesday's deadline, according to Wells.
Further, Plott said, residents should keep trees and bushes trimmed to ensure that 13 1/2-foot-high firetrucks can enter driveways in case of an emergency. And they should always be careful while welding, taking care to avoid dropping sparks in dry grass areas.
The most important things to remember, authorities say, is that the weather can always change, and that fire is never completely predictable.
"If you've got heavy rains and the brush is overgrown, they say it's going to be bad. If you get no rain, it could be really bad," said Capt. Bob Myers of Station 22. "It really all just depends on the wind."
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Fire Safety Tips
* Keep property clear of brush within 200 feet of any structure and 10 feet of a roadway. Keep a greenbelt between the house and any open brush as a buffer from wild lands.
* Keep a 13 1/2-foot-high clearance over driveways and private roads to provide room for firetrucks to drive through. Trees and bushes in the roadway constrict traffic both in and out in the event of a fire.
* Make sure that the address on the house is visible from the street to help firefighters identify the house.
* Be careful while welding. The Ventura County Fire Department distributes tips for welders at home repair retailers throughout the county.
* Don't use fireworks. They're illegal in Ventura County--except for Fillmore--and those bringing them into the county or using them could be cited by firefighters or police.