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Dry Winter Sparks Early Fire Season

Environment: Rainfall is near a record low, raising the risk for 3.4 million acres in Southland.

April 12, 2002|TIMOTHY HUGHES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The official fire season in much of Southern California will start a month earlier than usual this year because of one of the driest winters on record.

The start of this year's season has been moved up to Monday in several counties, and fire officials warn that the danger of brush fires probably will remain high until the expected return of seasonal rains shortly before Christmas.

The 3.4 million acres of Southern California land patrolled by state firefighters are drier than at any point since 1976, when records were first kept, officials said.

"There is huge, thick brush, and it's dying off," Ventura County Fire Department spokeswoman Sandi Wells said. "This fire season has the potential to be the most dangerous in years. It could be devastating."

Taking a cue from the state Department of Forestry, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties will begin their fire seasons in three days. This heightened alert calls for extra staffing, increased public education and more equipment to stop wildfires before they spread.

The Los Angeles County Fire Department has not extended its season yet, but officials said it probably will begin before mid-May, the traditional starting time.

"'It's done to increase public awareness, to let people know that the stuff out there is ready to burn," said Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Kurt Schaefer.

To prevent flare-ups, several controlled burns are scheduled in the next four weeks across Ventura County. Fire departments in other counties are calling up seasonal hand crews early to ensure adequate coverage.

Ventura County is monitoring homes adjacent to rural brush areas, Wells said. More than 17,000 weed-abatement notices will be sent out April 20 to remind owners to clear brush within 100 feet of their homes or risk having a $635 fine added to their tax bill, plus the cost for county cleanup crews.

Officials say the lack of rain, combined with overgrown brush, makes areas throughout Southern California--including the Conejo Valley, the foothill areas of Angeles National Forest, the Santa Monica Mountains and others--ripe for a return of the sort of devastating firestorms that occurred in 1993.

At least 450 homes and 70,000 acres of brush and timberland went up in flames when wildfires hit portions of Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties that October.

"We are as dry as a bone," Deputy Chief Bob Green of the state forestry department said Thursday. "You have the ingredients for fires to spread faster and with more intensity. This is not a normal occurrence."

Forecasters say this could be the driest rainfall season on record.

Only 4.27 inches of rain have fallen in downtown Los Angeles since the beginning of the season, which runs from July 1 to June 31. The driest season on record was 1960-1961, with 4.85 inches.

Santa Ana has collected just under 3 inches of rain so far. Last year, the city had 14.04 inches of rain by April 10.

The season's rainfall total for Ventura County is 6.78 inches, compared with nearly 24 inches at this time in 2001. In Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties, rainfall levels are nearly 5 inches below 2001.

Forecasters say an incipient El Nino meteorological condition could bring heaver-than-usual rains later this year, but they probably won't start until shortly before Christmas. Southern California's fire season usually runs from May 15 through November, with the most extensive blazes in late summer and early fall.

Green said fires have scorched more than 6,000 acres from San Luis Obispo to the Mexican border since January. Normally, he said, no more than 700 acres burn during that period.

"All the staff I have talked to have not recalled having this intensity of fires," Green said.

He said a brush fire Tuesday in the city of Riverside could be a warning of larger fires to come. The blaze in the northwest corner of the city burned more than 200 acres of dry brush-covered river bottom.

*

Times staff writer Eric Malnic contributed to this report.

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