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In hills, unchecked growth of brush adds fuel for the fires

Ten percent of property owners, including public agencies, fail to clear vegetation. Dry conditions complicate L.A.'s enforcement.

April 14, 2007|Tami Abdollah and Tony Barboza | Times Staff Writers

Two brush fires in the densely populated hills of Los Angeles, including one Thursday that burned three homes, have raised questions about how prepared the city is for a major blaze during this season of unprecedented dryness.

Both the fire near Franklin Canyon and the one two weeks ago in the Hollywood Hills burned largely on public land that was thick with vegetation.

Fire officials estimated Friday that about 300 of roughly 3,000 public properties in high fire zones in the city of Los Angeles -- including ones owned by the Department of Water and Power, Los Angeles Unified School District, Caltrans and the city parks department -- were found to be in violation of brush-clearing regulations during inspections in February and March.

Agencies have until June 1 to clear brush within 200 feet of buildings.

But that deadline and the effectiveness of the brush clearance program are in question now that L.A. has seen so little rain and brush fires have erupted during the traditional winter and spring rainy season.

The Los Angeles Fire Department typically starts enforcing the brush-clearance requirement May 1, because "in February, March and April it's cool, moist and green," said Fire Inspector Paul Terris. "But this year it's unusual. It's so dry."

A slice of DWP property in Franklin Canyon that caught fire Thursday had failed a brush clearance inspection in February, but the city had not planned to remove brush until mid-May.

The fire, which originated south of the Franklin Canyon Reservoir, was whipped by swirling 50-mph winds, burning 15 acres in L.A. and Beverly Hills.

"The reality is that it was the hillside that burned. It wasn't a sliver.... The whole hillside burned," Councilman Jack Weiss said. "In a very short period of time you were on public property, and that's where the fire happened."

On Friday, Weiss proposed an emergency motion calling on the DWP and the Fire Department to explain their brush-clearing efforts, rules and violations.

"Not only does the public need to know, they have a right to know," he said.

Fire officials determined that Thursday's fire was caused by wind that snapped a power line, which set fire to thick brush.

"It appears as though it ignited grass on DWP property," said Deputy Chief Mario Rueda.

In general, the Fire Department inspects properties annually for brush clearance. Public property inspections usually begin in March, private property inspections in May.

This year, public property inspections were moved up a month, to February, because of the dry conditions, said Fire Capt. Antoine McKnight.

But clearing brush too early can cause problems, which is one reason officials hesitate to move up the date.

"The problem with moving the brush clearance up in the year is that you might end up having a worse problem later on, when the Santa Ana winds come," said Fire Inspector Lloyd Fukuda. "There could be fuel that's been sitting there for over 10 months, preheated and ready to ignite."

Properties in violation are cited and given 20 days to clear brush. If they are cited again, owners are fined $270. If they still do not clear the brush, the city hires a contractor who then charges the property owner for the work, fire officials said.

DWP General Manager Ron Deaton said it was not entirely clear that the fire started on DWP land, and that an investigation with the Fire Department would clear that up.

Deaton said the brush clearance by Franklin Canyon Reservoir was set to be put out to bid by the Fire Department on May 17, "under the normal cycle."

He said about 12 of DWP's major properties go out to bid annually as part of an understanding with the Fire Department for the last seven years.

Fire officials said the property was last cleared in May 2006.

On Friday afternoon, the Fire Department bidding for clearance of public properties in Los Angeles was moved up to April 26 because of the abnormally dry conditions and the recent fires, Terris said.

For some residents, the brush clearance is long overdue.

"We get this letter to clear all the time. We do it.... I think the DWP" needs to, said Sharon Sistine, 64, a resident of the 1300 block of Beverly Drive, near where the fire originated.

Sistine, whose house faces the hill the fire swept down, said that she called the Fire Department and the DWP about the hillside about six months ago and that the uncleared brush was "an accident waiting to happen."

"My neighbor told me he has a friend who lives in Hollywood and his home backs up to DWP property, and it's the same situation," Sistine said. "...I really felt that my side of the street was much safer because I'm backed up to other property owners and we maintain our property."

A statement released by DWP Friday afternoon said, "If it is ultimately determined that the LADWP bears responsibility in this matter, we will own up to it."

Along with the winds and dry weather, the wood-shake roofs of all three Beverly Hills houses damaged Thursday put them at greater risk of catching fire, officials said.

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