With sirens blaring and a scanner radio crackling out numbers, beeps and scaled tones, Ventura County Fire Capt. Damon Dalton glared through his wrap-around sunglasses and headed toward the latest brush fire.
The fire turned out to be nothing, but Dalton didn't know that at the time, and no one on the Ventura County Fire Department's wildfire task force was taking any chances. Dalton, a Thousand Oaks native, knows how quickly a fire can consume the county's dry hills.
Aside from the small brush fire at a dry lake bed near the border of Ventura and Los Angeles counties, Dalton and the task force had little action Wednesday. But they had plenty to worry about: Fire conditions now are far worse than normal.
A few hours to the south, in the town of Alpine near San Diego, several Ventura County firefighters were on the front lines of a blaze late into Wednesday evening.
In most years, when the hot Santa Ana winds of September and October don't blow into December and January, the 11 task force crew members work elsewhere in the county, in stations from Port Hueneme to Oak Park to Simi Valley.
But ask any member of the crew, which used Station 31 in Thousand Oaks as a staging area Wednesday, and they will tell you: These are not normal times.
"The task force is staffed only for a day like today," said Mark Acevedo, 42, the task force team leader. "The guys live for days like today. We have a lot of pride in our gold colors."
Acevedo was referring to the task force's gold engines, which are ordered into service only when the department goes into a "Plan 2" alert during increased emergency situations. It's not necessarily for wildfires only; mudslide danger can bring about a Plan 2 alert, said Sandi Wells, a department spokeswoman.
The task force was brought together Tuesday and has spent the last two days patrolling the east county.
A 20-year department veteran, Acevedo said the program has been in place for five years and gives the department quick-strike capabilities when a brush fire flares up at any part of the county.
December was a busy month for county firefighters.
With only 1.28 inches of rain since October, several wildfires, fanned by warm winds, charred more than 1,000 acres. They cost the county more than $1 million in overtime pay and other costs.
On Wednesday afternoon, the task force was back at the scene of the most recent blaze--the North Ranch fire in Thousand Oaks, which burned 600 acres. The task force members were inside the gated North Ranch Country Club near Westlake High School to study brush clearance and burn patterns to help them prepare for the next fire.
If predictions from weather forecasters hold true, it could be a busy few weeks for the task force until the rain comes.
Last year, 19.44 inches of rain fell at the County Government Center in Ventura. That's about average. A record 42.46 inches fell in 1998.
But this year, no rain fell in November or December after just more than an inch in October. That is atypical, said Tim McClung, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.
Usually, he said, about 2 inches of rain fall during the last three months of the year, with a few wet days toward year's end.
"There's no reason at this point to think we're not going to have some rain," McClung said. "But it's not on the immediate horizon."
Forecasters say the 25- to 30-mph winds would die down by the weekend. Daytime highs throughout the county are expected to hit the low 80s today, McClung said.
At Station 31 in Thousand Oaks, John Uribe, a task force member and 27-year department veteran, waited for the next call. The earlier brush fire he and the others were called out to had been knocked down by the time they arrived.
"If we were going to have anything I would have thought it would have been yesterday," said Uribe, who works out of the Port Hueneme station. "But we never know what's going to happen."
Times staff writer Margaret Talev contributed to this report.
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Fire destroys homes in San Diego County. A3