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Santa Anas Stir Fears of Fire Across Southland

Weather Service issues 'red flag' alert and officials step up preparations as winds gust through the parched region.

September 22, 2004|David Pierson and Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writers

Santa Ana wind gusts of up to 60 mph swept through Southern California's canyons and mountains Tuesday, prompting the National Weather Service to issue a "red flag" warning and fire departments to bolster crews as they braced for the beginning of the fall fire season.

A year after the worst wildfires in state history hit the Southland, fire officials said the continuing dry conditions have left the region vulnerable to another season of destructive blazes even though August and September have been relatively cool.

"Sure, we can have three to four days of rain and humidity," said Capt. Rick Vogt of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "But all it takes is three to four days of the opposite drying conditions and we're right back to where we started."

The ominous signs of a Santa Ana condition appeared Tuesday morning, as window blinds rattled, allergies were inflamed, and warm winds from the east rustled trees and created postcard-perfect views.

"I was looking at the trees and saw they were blowing in the wrong direction," Vogt said. "It means we're going to have more hot, dry weather.... There's potential for a disastrous fire."

Southern California coastal residents also witnessed unusually large waves crashing onshore. National Weather Service specialist Stuart Seto said a large storm in the South Pacific caused the wave action. Santa Ana winds raking the Southland may have contributed, but they did not generate the towering breakers, he said.

But the winds did cause a brief scare in San Bernardino's Del Rosa neighborhood, where dozens of homes were burned in October. A small fire broke out Tuesday in the nearby hills, but firefighters quickly brought the blaze under control.

Officials are most concerned about part of the San Bernardino Mountains where bark beetles have killed more than 12 million trees, which can explode during a major brush fire. But across the region, the bone-dry California chaparral, which typically burns at least every quarter-century, leaves many canyons and mountains at risk.

Chaparral stands in the San Bernardino forest, for example, are up to half a century old. Officials said the vegetation has lost up to half of its moisture this summer.

"We're at the most critical we could possibly be," said Rocky Opliger, deputy chief for fire and aviation management for the San Bernardino National Forest.

The cooler, moister conditions over the last few weeks may have had a modest effect in reducing the fire danger in grasslands. But the humidity would have next to no effect on large parched trees similar to those responsible for fueling last year's wildfires that killed 26 people, scorched 738,000 acres and destroyed more than 3,600 homes and other buildings.

Amid the gloomy forecast, additional firefighters were deployed Tuesday morning in the Los Angeles County foothill and canyon areas of Santa Clarita, the Antelope Valley and the San Gabriel Valley, including strike teams of five engines and a battalion chief in Newhall and Valencia.

San Bernardino County fire officials in August increased staffing in stations in mountain and foothill communities, including Devore, Lytle Creek, Wrightwood, Fawn Skin, Forest Falls and Angeles Oaks.

Water tenders, or huge water trucks, were on standby in remote areas of Ventura County. And a hand crew was ready to respond eight hours a day Monday through Friday at Cal State Channel Islands near Camarillo.

"There's potential for things to get a lot worse before they get any better," said Capt. Mark Savage of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. "Nothing is going to change until we get a significant amount of rain."

When is that going to happen?

"I don't see any rain in the foreseeable future," said Bruce Rockwell, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service.

Utilities are closely watching bark beetle-infested forest communities such as Idyllwild and Lake Arrowhead and may shut off power there to prevent downed lines from starting a forest fire, said Marlon Walker, a spokesman for Southern California Edison.

Federal, state and local fire officials as well as Edison have been removing dead and dying trees -- particularly along evacuation routes, communications centers and mountain communities such as Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead. The U.S. Forest Service this year alone removed 165,000 trees with a diameter greater than 2 feet, 504,000 smaller trees and many tons of chaparral.

"We want people to know that we're not out of the woods yet," Savage said. "The devastating fires last year occurred in the end of October and beginning of November. Typically, that's when the Santa Ana winds are in full swing."

Homeowners are being asked to remove brush around their property and clear trash to prevent fires from spreading. Fire officials in Ventura have gone so far as encouraging residents not to use weed whackers, lawn mowers and other machines with rotary motors to clear brush in their yards because the equipment can create sparks.

"September and October are usually two critical months -- it's the end of summer, things are even drier, and we haven't seen much rain," said Tracy Martinez, a spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Fire Department. "We need to remind folks that it's not too late to clear defensible space" around their homes.


Times staff writers Amanda Covarrubias, Lance Pugmire and Wendy Thermos contributed to this report.

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