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O.C. Fire Authority Bolsters Its Ranks for Dangerously Dry Holiday

Safety: Conditions mean 'everything is ready to burn,' but officials are adding equipment, staff to prepare for Fourth.

July 04, 2002|DAN WEIKEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Facing the worst fire danger in almost a decade, the Orange County Fire Authority will reinforce its ranks for the Fourth of July holiday today with more staff, a second helicopter and strike teams near high-risk areas.

"Everything is ready to burn," said Capt. Stephen J. Miller, a spokesman for the authority. "It's been a long time since we've had rain. The vegetation is extremely dry. All we need are high winds and high temperatures, and we will have an explosive situation."

Two strike teams with five engines each, a bulldozer crew, two dispatchers, a battalion chief and two division chiefs are among the additional resources. One helicopter will be at Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center in Mission Viejo, the other at Fullerton Municipal Airport.

About 300 county firefighters will be in the field today, Miller said, compared with the 250 on duty on a typical day. The added staff will be on the job from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m.

Officials said the extra equipment and personnel will give the authority a faster response time and more resources in the early stages of an emergency.

County Fire Chief Chip Prather has warned that this year's Independence Day celebration might be the most hazardous fire situation since the 1993 Laguna Canyon fire, which destroyed 450 homes and caused $500 million in damage.

Prather has asked the public not to buy or use legal safe-and-sane fireworks, a recommendation that has ignited criticism among charities and organizations that benefit from their sale.

Because of the tinderbox conditions, the authority opened fire season on April 15, months ahead of other years. So far, fires have burned more than 5,000 acres in Orange County this year, compared to just 97 acres for the same period in 2001.

In the last few months, sizable brush fires have hit Laguna Canyon, Coto de Caza and Yorba Linda. Statewide, fires have consumed at least 75,000 acres and destroyed dozens of homes.

The authority's precautions are similar to those of other fire departments in Southern California.

The Los Angeles County Fire Department will have additional equipment, including an extra water-dropping helicopter, four bulldozers and water trucks, a spokesman said.

Most of the extra attention will be concentrated in brushy areas such as Lancaster, San Dimas and Santa Clarita, said department spokesman Albert Flores.

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