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Worried agencies step up preparations

The driest year on record has officials considering special measures to keep a lid on brush fires.

May 10, 2007|Rong-Gong Lin II and Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writers

L.A. officials want to ban grilling at parks and increase hillside fire watch patrols as agencies across Southern California study the Griffith Park blaze for clues on what more they can do to prepare for the fire season ahead.

As the region endures what is expected to be the driest year on record, officials are considering some extra measures to protect homes.

Four days of hot, windy conditions sparked brush fires in Griffith Park as well as other hillside areas around Southern California, including San Bernardino, Castaic, Norco, Yorba Linda and Lake Elsinore.

The brush fire season usually begins in October, but the high temperatures and bone-dry conditions have put Southland firefighters on watch earlier than usual.

"Basically in Southern California, we are in year-round fire season," said Riverside County Fire Capt. Fernando Herrera.

The Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Department is considering an emergency ban on grilling and any other type of open flame because of the heightened fire risk.

Officials are now discussing the proposal with City Council members.

"This is a different year than we have ever had," said John Mukri, head of the Recreation and Parks Department. "Let's err on the side of caution.... There are a lot of parks like this ready to burn."

Mukri is also considering extending a smoking ban in effect at city parks to golf courses.

At the same time, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa vowed Wednesday to increase ranger patrols during times of heightened fire danger, hoping to catch blazes quickly.

Officials noted that a February fire in Griffith Park was caught very early and was stopped before it could get out of control. Also, Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss recently submitted a motion exploring a ban on flammable wood-shake roofs in hillside areas or possibly citywide.

Homes with such roofs suffered major damage in a fire this spring in Beverly Hills.

"They're hazardous to the neighborhood's health," Weiss said.

Weiss has also talked about a "pre-deployment" firefighting strategy, in which firetrucks are placed in hilly, at-risk neighborhoods during red flag weather as a precaution. But with more trucks stationed in neighborhoods, the city would have to balance fire risk with staffing for other emergency response duties.

"It seems logical that we're going to have a lot more days this summer than ever before that qualify for pre-deployment," Weiss said. "If that places a burden on our fire resources, we're as a city going to have to pay for that pre-deployment."

In response to the dry conditions this year, mandatory brush clearing for government agencies and landowners has already begun.

The Department of Water and Power rushed to clear 100 acres of overgrown property around reservoirs and water tanks a month ahead of schedule after an April fire near Franklin Canyon, said DWP spokesman Joe Ramallo. That fire on DWP property burned several expensive homes.

Under pressure from the City Council, the agency began clearing vegetation late last month at 14 properties across the city and was scheduled to finish this week.

The agency contracts with the city Fire Department to clear brush, and will inspect its sites -- several of which are near populated areas like Sherman Oaks -- several times throughout fire season.

The Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, which includes the Santa Monica Mountains, is steeling for what could be the worst fire season yet.

The authority is spending $1.8 million -- $600,000 more than last year -- to maintain about 1,000 high-priority acres.

"That's something that we've added because of the severity of the fire season," said authority spokesman Dash Stolarz.

The organization encompasses 65,000 acres.


Times staff writers Jonathan Abrams and David Haldane contributed to this report.

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