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Orange County

Fire Danger Sparks Vigilance

Safety: Living in forest full of fuel has residents of rural O.C. on edge. They patrol back roads for signs of trouble.

July 05, 2002|MIKE ANTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Mike Boeck looks at the steep slopes surrounding his Silverado Canyon home, he sees trouble: a forest full of fuel, trees and chaparral as dry as if they had been baked in a kiln.

All it would take is one thoughtlessly discarded cigarette, one goofball with some fireworks, one illegal campfire or one downed power line.

With a long holiday weekend and Orange County's mountains as parched as they've been in more than 40 years, Boeck and his neighbors are fighting fire before it begins by patrolling the moonlit back roads of their rural community throughout the night.

"We're going to be looking for people who are suspicious, people with fireworks, people trespassing," said Boeck, who has removed nine pickup truck loads of brush from around his mountainside stucco home. "We are very vulnerable right now, so we're going to try to be the eyes and ears of the sheriff."

Those volunteer efforts are typical of late fall, when the Santa Ana winds blow. But this isn't a typical year, and across Orange County, residents and officials are geared up far earlier than usual for a fire season many predict will be one of the worst.

Seasonal firefighters, helicopters and air tankers were brought in by the U.S. Forest Service weeks early. Training fires that usually take place at Camp Pendleton in May were canceled--it was too risky. On Monday, fires in Cleveland National Forest campgrounds were banned, and the closure of some roads is being considered.

An effort to clear plants within 100 feet of buildings in canyon communities has so far produced 200 to 300 tons of material--50% more than last year.

Already this year, more than 5,000 acres of Orange County wild lands have gone up in flames, compared with a total of 594 acres in the three previous years.

"The intensity of the fires we've had so far, and the fast rate of travel despite no significant winds--it's making us extremely concerned," Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Stephen Miller said. "We are at a critically dangerous level for this early in the season."

The script has been months in the making. As of June 30, Orange County had 3.2 inches of rain--one-fourth of what is normal and the lowest amount since 1960-61.

"I was up on Ortega Highway and you can feel [the moisture] coming out of your skin," said Jon Anderson, the county's vegetation hazard reduction supervisor. "It's dry as a bone."

Ironically, the lack of rain has meant Anderson's crews have had less work than in previous years.

"Some of the properties that we normally cut, we didn't cut--it was so sparse," he said.

What is there doesn't take much to ignite. When a county bulldozer that was clearing weeds in Laguna Canyon last week hit a rock, the spark set off a blaze that charred 80 acres.

Every 15 days, fire authorities test the moisture content of plants in the county's fire-prone canyons by baking them in an oven. When George Ewan got the latest lab report, the numbers confirmed his worst fears. The chamise, sumac and sage scrub were as dry as they usually are in October. Some was nearly dormant.

"I've been in California for 10 years, and I haven't seen the moisture content in plants this low this early," said Ewan, wild land fire defense planner for the Fire Authority. "It gives you that sinking feeling."

The 1993 Laguna Canyon fire that burned 450 homes and caused more than $500 million in damage taught many lessons.

One lesson that officials hope will pay dividends this year is a 1996 county building code change requiring "fuel modification zones" around the perimeter of new developments.

"The county is growing fast and it's encroaching on areas that have burned in the past and will again in the future," Ewan said. "It's not a matter of if it's going to burn, but when."

Under the code changes, the sides of homes facing wild land areas must be built with noncombustible materials, from the walls to the window frames and eaves. Nothing combustible can be placed within 30 feet; the next 140 feet is made up of an irrigated greenbelt and a zone with approved plants that maintain high moisture levels even in drought years.

A blaze in May that burned more than 1,000 acres and threatened hundreds of homes around Rancho Santa Margarita was contained, in part, when the zones provided fire breaks, Miller said.

"The fire burned to the fuel modification zone, and it did exactly what it was supposed to do," he said. "People living in these areas have to take responsibility on their end to provide a good defense so we can provide the best offense."

That's why Boeck and his canyon neighbors will take turns patrolling this weekend, armed with nothing more than a sharp eye and two-way radios.

Several recent small arson fires in secluded Black Star Canyon --long a hangout for teens--have set area residents on edge, he said.

"We're not trying to confront anyone, but we are getting more aggressive because of the recent arson fires," said Boeck, who lives across the road from the volunteer fire department--a fact that, in this dry season, offers little comfort.

"We're hoping that just by our presence alone, we will deter people from hanging around the area."

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