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Orange County

Fire Luck May Not Hold

The county escaped damage from last fall's wildfires, but officials say this season could be especially bad and precautions are needed.

May 02, 2004|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

While much of Southern California experienced the worst fire season in modern history last year, Orange County escaped virtually unscathed.

Can it do it again?

Don't count on it, said Capt. Stephen Miller, a spokesman for the Orange County Fire Authority.

"Because we didn't have a significant fire, the vegetation has been building up," Miller said.

"So there's more fuel available, which is always dangerous. The potential is there for a really bad fire season."

Because of a second straight year of below-average rainfall, the official fire season will begin Monday, nearly a month earlier than last year's. But in Orange County and most of Southern California, fire season is virtually year-round these days.

"Our humidity is very low, and if you get the Santa Ana winds blowing, it can suck moisture out of even nice, green vegetation," Miller said.

"That can make things very explosive."

That is essentially what happened last year in Southern California, where wildfires consumed more than 700,000 acres, killing 24 people and destroying more than 3,600 homes and other structures.

Miller said Orange County caught a break last year: "Luck had something to do with it. I'd like to believe we were aggressive in our community outreach in helping prevent fires. But the winds were blowing like crazy everywhere last fall. And they weren't blowing here."

The winds were gusting in 2002 when brush fires scorched 5,620 acres countywide, but not one home was burned.

Of course, the county has not always been so lucky: In 1993, Santa Ana winds stoked flames that destroyed 265 homes in Laguna Beach and 82 more in Emerald Bay and El Morro.

With the opening of fire season, wilderness areas in Anaheim, Brea, Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, Orange and unincorporated areas of the county will be closed.

The message is the same to homeowners: Clear brush at least 50 feet from structures, harden homes with noncombustible construction and be on the lookout for suspicious activity in wilderness areas.

"I think people are more aware that they have to take steps to save their own homes," Miller said.

"We learn a lot from every fire."

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