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The Valley

After an Early Start, Firefighters Rest and Prepare for Next Blaze

Alert: Dry winter and summer heat bring danger season ahead of schedule. The county's crews say they're ready.

July 14, 2002|KARIMA A. HAYNES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After battling brush fires in northern Los Angeles County for three straight days last week, firefighters spent rare down time inspecting equipment, offering safety tips to property owners and resting.

The next blaze is just a spark away.

"We know that it's not a matter of if, but when we'll get a call," said Capt. Norm Branch of the Los Angeles County Fire Department's Station 111 in Saugus.

Hot temperatures, dry brush and sporadic winds have created dangerous wildfire conditions, officials said.

As a result, Fire Department resources are being expended far before the traditional start of the brush fire season in September.

"We are gearing up for a very busy brush fire season," said Inspector Kurt Schaefer, a county Fire Department spokesman. "A lot depends on weather conditions, which are obviously out of our control, so we have to be prepared."

Fire officials predicted this spring that the fire season in much of Southern California would start earlier than usual because of one of the driest winters on record.

Fire danger forecasts are based on the amount of moisture in ground vegetation, officials said. The less moisture, the more flammable they are.

Fire officials encourage property owners to clear brush away from buildings and to be prepared to heed evacuation orders.

Brush fires on three consecutive days beginning last Monday pushed firefighters beyond exhaustion as they battled blazes in Santa Clarita and north of Pyramid Lake. The fires charred nearly 400 acres, heavily damaged one home and threatened hundreds of others, and temporarily shut down local freeways. There were no serious injuries, officials said.

Last week's fires followed the recent Copper and Bouquet Canyon blazes. The Copper fire in June blackened 23,500 acres, destroyed nine homes and came perilously close to dozens more. It was named for the street near Santa Clarita where a spark from welding equipment set off the blaze in Green Valley near Santa Clarita.

Firefighters in May battled a fire in Bouquet Canyon about eight miles northeast of Santa Clarita in the Angeles National Forest. Flames burned 3,200 acres and two outbuildings, but spared several cabins.

To battle brush fires, firefighters say they eat healthy foods, drink plenty of water and exercise regularly. The conditioning, they say, gives them the strength to lug 35 to 40 pounds of equipment and haul hundreds of feet of heavy hoses up steep hillsides while wearing protective gear.

"When you are battling the fire, you don't notice how hard you're working," said county Firefighter Scott Tucker of Station 126 in Valencia. "When it's all over, that's when the fatigue gets to you. All you want to do is sleep."

Branch said that he saves his strength by slowing down when the temperature rises above 100 degrees.

"We try to do our exercises in the early morning," he said. "We get something to eat around noon. And then we try to stay inside by the air conditioner to keep our body temperature cool."

As a fire specialist, Mark Kyllingstad of Station 73 in Newhall said it's his job to look for signs of fatigue among firefighters as they battle brush fires that produce towering flames, thick smoke and superheated air.

"I keep my head up and watch to see if it's too hot. If it is, I back the guys up and we move downhill to a safety zone," he said. "It's extremely fatiguing."

Firefighters say they also spend a lot of time inspecting equipment, which at many stations includes a fire engine, a bulldozer, a water truck, two patrol trucks and hundreds of feet of hose.

"When we get a 911 call that a hill's on fire, we have to be ready to move a lot of stuff," Schaefer said.

It's not unusual that during slow periods firefighters are looking under a fire engine's hood, checking a patrol truck's brake linings or cleaning, hanging and packing hoses. "We have to be ready for the next time," Schaefer said.

He said the camaraderie among firefighters also helps them mentally prepare for the fires.

"Firefighters feed off of one another," Schaefer said. "We just say, 'We got the last one. Let's go get this one.' "

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