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Ventura County

Swat Teams Aim at Insects

In Ventura County, crews monitor 1,300 likely breeding sites, such as stagnant pools, for mosquitoes that can carry deadly diseases.

June 15, 2003|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

The mucky water looks like home to nothing more than a few strands of algae and some lively water bugs.

But practiced hunter Steve Solomon immediately spots his quarry.

Tiny threads of mosquito larvae are wriggling fast in the dipperful of water he has just scooped from a pungent flood control channel in Ojai.

"Stagnant water: That's where you find 'em," he said triumphantly.

Wearing jeans, knee-high rubber boots and latex gloves -- and occasionally carrying a machete -- Solomon, 25, of Ventura is one of hundreds of mosquito hunters across California who venture into brush-choked canyons, smelly storm drains and urban backyards to confront a familiar summer pest.

Now in high gear, they scatter larvicide over stagnant streams and slip tiny mosquito-eating fish into birdbaths in an attempt to stay ahead of the insects' prodigious breeding ability. Health officials say there is more at stake than keeping the pesky biters from spoiling dusky summer evenings. Mosquitoes are carriers for some nasty and potentially fatal diseases, including encephalitis, malaria and West Nile virus. The state's first case of a human infected with West Nile virus occurred in Los Angeles County last year.

Officials fear the virus has established residence and that more people will be sickened by it this summer.

With an abundance of late-season rain, bug trackers in 70 monitoring districts statewide play a critical role in keeping mosquito populations down, said Vicki Kramer, chief of vector-borne diseases at the state's Department of Health Services. A vector is an animal, usually an insect, that transmits a disease-producing organism from a host to a noninfected animal.

Together, the trackers check 80% of California's urbanized areas for signs of infestation, she said.

"Water gets trapped in drains and gutters, in little buckets in your backyard," she said. "Even though we don't have summer rain, there are still plenty of breeding sites in California."

In Ventura County, Solomon and two other workers keep track of 1,300 potential mosquito-breeding sources. Los Angeles County is monitored by five vector control districts, each employing its own crews.

The Greater Los Angeles Vector Control District hires seasonal help to service Los Angeles and 33 other cities, as well as some unincorporated neighborhoods. The 1,300 square miles they cover include 10,000 swimming pools, some so nasty they have turned into mosquito factories, said spokeswoman Stephanie Miladin.

It doesn't take much to create a breeding site, Miladin said. An unattended birdbath, a fountain, even an old tire can become an incubator, she said.

"Mosquitoes need only a week to 10 days to reproduce," she said, "and they can breed in less than a half-inch of water."

Solomon's terrain covers Fillmore, Santa Paula and Ojai in Ventura County. While he has his share of scum-laden pools, much of his daily routine involves naturally occurring hatcheries.

On a recent day, he is knee-deep in algae-choked water on San Antonio Creek. Still water pools along the creek's ashy shale banks, and that is where he finds the nearly invisible mosquito larvae.

Wearing goggles and gloves for safety, he dips his fist into a bucket of larvicide. Then he scatters the grains over the water's surface, where it will become a last meal for hungry juvenile mosquitoes.

The pesticide is not harmful to birds or other species, he said. As he walks up and down the creek's banks, distributing the grains, a noisy flock of swallows swoops and darts nearby.

Solomon stops by a stagnant stream where mosquitoes lay so many eggs that he makes a pit stop every week.

At an Ojai community garden, he drops by for a few minutes to throw a few grains on its decorative ponds.

Population control is just part of an agency's multi-pronged approach to abatement. Districts also maintain "sentry" chicken flocks, whose blood is regularly tested for the presence of mosquito-borne diseases.

Many offer hotlines to report dead birds. Dead jays, crows, ravens and hawks are often the first clue that West Nile virus is circulating among birds and mosquitoes in an area, the state health department's Kramer said.

Most people experience only mild flu-like symptoms when infected with the virus, first detected in the United States in 1999.

But the disease can be deadly. Of 4,156 cases identified last year, 284 of those infected died, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Health officials say no cases have been reported in California so far this year. To avoid infection, the CDC recommends avoiding outside activity between dusk and dawn, when mosquitoes are most likely to bite.

A repellent containing DEET, or N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide, as the active ingredient is effective and safe when used according to instructions, the CDC's Web site says. Doors and windows should have tight-fitting screens, and standing water sources around the home should be eliminated, it says.

Because most mosquitoes are night-biters, Solomon has only been bitten twice in his two years on the job. Snakes, ticks, spiders and encounters with transients are bigger hazards of his job, he said.

But the benefits of being outdoors all day outweigh the risks, Solomon said. As he dips his scoop into another pool of brackish water, birds twitter in a stand of eucalyptus trees and bright yellow wildflowers dot the ground.

"This is a job where you get dirty and muddy every day, but I'm outdoors, so I love it," he said.

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