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Southland at the tinder mercy of a record-breaking dry spell

June 30, 2007|Hector Becerra and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

At the stroke of midnight tonight, Southern California will mark a milestone that few are celebrating.

History will show that from July 1 of 2006 to June 30 of this year, only 3.21 inches of rain fell in downtown Los Angeles -- the lowest precipitation level since records started being kept in the 1880s. Other cities around the region, including Pasadena, Culver City, Anaheim and Riverside, will also set all-time records.

As the record falls, firefighters around the region are bracing for a potentially disastrous run-up to July 4 as fireworks go on sale just as temperatures rise into the triple digits.

"Human nature is we all love a new record," said Bill Patzert, a climatologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge. "But this one's on the hate list. And it's a long list."

The unrelenting dry conditions have sapped moisture from plant life in hillsides and canyons, making them far more susceptible than normal to sparks from fireworks.

The latest studies of brush and grasslands by the L.A. County Fire Department found that the moisture level in plants is the lowest in 26 years. And that doesn't count the large amount of brush that has already died.

Of equal concern to firefighters is the wind. Typically, Southern California records 30 days of Santa Ana winds a year. But over the last 12 months, the region saw more than 100 days of Santa Anas. On Friday, the National Weather Service again issued a red flag fire warning for forest and mountain areas.

"We've never seen anything like this," said Burbank Fire Capt. Ron Bell. "The Griffith Park and Hollywood Hills fires show that something that could normally be contained immediately could rage out of control with the wind. Things are going to be bigger and worse than ever."

Bell's city took the extreme action of canceling its annual fireworks show this year because the conditions are just too dry.

Other fireworks shows are proceeding -- but with precautions. In advance of the Rose Bowl display, fire retardant is being sprayed in the Linda Vista brush surrounding the stadium.

Other cities have enlisted police, firefighters and even volunteers to watch for signs of fireworks and to patrol hillsides that are prone to brush fires. The Orange County Fire Authority is deploying firetrucks throughout the county in case they're needed for a quick response to blazes.

"It's almost like gasoline out there with all the dead fuel," said Capt. Stephen Miller.

Wenzel Likness, a 65-year-old resident of Orange, said he has lived in his hillside home for 20 years and has never seen the fire danger so severe.

"We've plowed some fire breaks," he said, "but I think that in these conditions, with so much dry fuel, some strong winds could easily overtake the measures we've taken."

Fireworks -- including "safe and sane" ones -- are illegal in the majority of cities around Southern California, including Los Angeles. But several dozen cities still sell them. Firefighters worry that people will buy fireworks where they are legal but set them off during festivities at parks or in hillside areas where a spark and some wind can create a major brush fire.

"Next week is not shaping up good for us," said Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper, whose agency is stepping up fireworks enforcement this weekend and through July 4. "We're expecting triple digits in the inland valleys. And with the dry fuel conditions, it's going to be a very challenging time for us."

At a stand in Fillmore, Bill Shanks of Port Hueneme brought his 13-year-old son, Scott, to pick out about $150 worth of fireworks. His son has a friend who lives in Fillmore, Shanks said, and on July 4 they plan to set off the fireworks within the city, where it is legal.

Shanks said he isn't worried about the pyrotechnics causing fires because those sold in Fillmore don't leave the ground. "What really scares me are the bottle rockets," he said. "Because once they're shot off, nobody knows where it goes."

Along Interstate 15, the main artery that connects Nevada to Southern California, officials have cracked down on those who are bringing illegal fireworks into the state.

Bomb squad detectives and fire officials have staked out stores in Nevada, especially those near the border, and are tracking large vehicles when they enter California, where most fireworks are illegal. Authorities recently arrested four people after finding more than 4,000 pounds of illegal fireworks in their trailer on I-15 near Barstow.

On Thursday, a City Terrace man was arrested after authorities raided his home and found almost 2,500 pounds of illegal fireworks.

For weather experts, dangerous conditions have even taken the fun out of breaking the record.

Two years ago, forecasters were disappointed when downtown L.A. failed by a few inches to set an all-time rain record. Patzert, the climatologist, later argued at a weather conference that moving the rain station from downtown proper to normally drier USC was the culprit -- and that L.A. really did break the record.

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