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Officials predict 'normal' wildfire season for Southern California

But they caution that wildfire season could take a nasty turn as lush growth from winter's heavy rains dries out and late-summer Santa Ana winds move in.

June 17, 2011|By Julie Cart, Los Angeles Times
  • Los Angeles County fire crews mop up after dousing a small brush fire on Brea Canyon Road near the 57 Freeway on June 14. The county fire chief said Thursday that the lush winter growth had already spawned 400 more fire starts than at this time last year.
Los Angeles County fire crews mop up after dousing a small brush fire on Brea… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

Citing bountiful winter rains, fire officials Thursday forecast a "normal" wildfire season but cautioned that Southern California's green hillsides could turn combustible in time for late summer's fire-inducing Santa Ana winds.

Emerging from a meeting of federal, state and local fire bosses, L.A. County Fire Chief Daryl L. Osby said the lush winter growth had already spawned 400 more fire starts than at this time last year and warned "we have to brace ourselves" for late-season fires.

Osby also confirmed that the county had hammered out an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to provide night-flying helicopters to support firefighting in the Angeles National Forest. "If it is safe. That's the key: If it's safe," he said.

The agreement follows a storm of criticism that arose from the management of the 2009 Station fire, the largest wildfire in L.A. County history. The Forest Service was criticized for what some considered the lack of an aggressive strategy in battling the blaze in the Angeles National Forest. The agency's policy of not using aviation to fight the fire at night was singled out for harsh critique.

The Station fire was nearly extinguished on its first day but gathered strength overnight. Air tankers ordered for 7 the next morning did not arrive until about two hours later, and by then the flames had begun to rage out of control.

That delay — and the lack of helicopters and pilots with the ability to perform the dangerous job of flying over wildfires in the dark — led to federal investigations, including an examination by the Government Accountability Office that has yet to be released.

Members of Congress, among others, have called for the federal firefighting agency to revisit its policy; but the Forest Service is still studying whether to commission a fleet of night-flying aircraft, officials said.

Not many firefighting agencies allow helicopters to fly over fires at night, but the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the L.A. County Fire Department do, conducting water-dropping and tactical assessment operations with infared technology.

The Station fire burned 250 square miles of the Angeles National Forest, destroyed more than 200 homes and other structures, and killed two Los Angeles County firefighters.

Under the new agreement, federal foresters may request the assistance of the county's night-flying helicopters, but the pilot will make the final determination on whether the mission is safe.

Jim Hall, deputy chief of the Forest Service, said the night-flying agreement applies only to the Angeles National Forest.

The statewide wildfire assessment is expected to be released Friday.

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