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Orange County

Risky Fire Season at Hand

Last year's was the worst in Orange County history and 2003 will be almost as bad, according to the Fire Authority. Sunday is opening day.

May 31, 2003|David Haldane and Zeke Minaya | Times Staff Writers

Once again, Orange County is facing a bad fire season.

Well, not quite as bad as last year's worst-ever season, according to Sgt. Steven Miller, a spokesman for the Orange County Fire Authority. But, he said, it's going to be really, really bad.

"In Southern California you don't even have to be in fire season to have a major fire," Miller said. In fact, he said, sometimes the season's boundaries are expanded to accommodate the fires.

A case in point is last year's fire season, described as "the most dangerous in years." It was declared open more than a month early, on April 15, compared to this year's season, which opens Sunday.

The reason for the expanded season, according to Miller, is that the winter of 2001-02 was the driest in Orange County history. It also came, he said, on the heels of several years of drought-like weather.

"There were a lot of red flags." Miller said, "and we were concerned about the potential."

This year's rainfall, he said, has been above average, bringing an end to the drought. Sometimes, though, it seems as if you can't catch a break -- all the rain did, Miller said, was add fuel for potential fires.

"The problem," he said, "is that most of the rains weren't long and sustaining. So a lot of the older vegetation that's out there hasn't had a chance to fully rehydrate. Also, we've had a lot of new growth from the rains that has come up underneath.

"So now," he said, "you've got all this newer, lighter fuel that's going to grow out quickly. It will be thinner with more air space around it -- stuff that burns quick to get all the heavier brush going."

Bottom line: "I wouldn't say it's safer this year than last," Miller warned. "The same potential is there."

There's also the same message to homeowners: clear excess brush from at least a 50-foot radius around your house, stay vigilant and hope for the best. Oh yes, and steer clear of the county's 180,000 acres of wilderness area, which will be closed to foot traffic anyway.

At least the first part of that sage advice seems to have played a role in at least two incidents last year.

A fire in June that blackened 80 acres of Laguna Canyon was attributed to the inadvertent actions of a bulldozer operator who, in implementing the fire authority's instructions, was clearing weeds. He hit a rock, sparking the fire. And a fast-moving brush fire in November missed 30 Yorba Linda homes due, in large measure, Miller said at the time, to the community's brush-clearing efforts.

Miller credits those clearance efforts countywide with the fact that not a single home was lost to a brush fire last year, despite the scorching of 5,620 acres. And at least some county residents seem to be taking the fire authority's annual message to heart.

"It can happen just like that," Cindy Harvey, who lives near Mission Viejo, said with a snap of her fingers. "One little wind, one little blow, and you have a fire."

Harvey said she and her neighbors make major efforts each year, including clearing brush and watering their lawns, to minimize the hazards.

"I understand how people can get numb to this stuff, hearing it every year," Miller said, "but it's the reality in Southern California.

"Every year is a potentially bad year."

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