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California wildfires: Record dry conditions bring dangers

May 02, 2013|By Hector Becerra and Matt Stevens

The Southern California wildfire season got off to a foreboding start Thursday with a massive brush fire in Ventura County that officials fear is just a preview of dangerous months ahead.

The fire showed in dramatic fashion how the region’s record dry conditions and lack of rainfall can quickly combine with fierce Santa Ana winds to produce widespread havoc.

Firefighters said that the dry winter and spring left the brush much more combustible than they have ever seen at this time of year. Weather forecasters said the Santa Ana wind conditions Thursday produced gusts topping 60 mph. Those velocities are significantly above normal for May and more common for the fall, when the Santa Anas are at their strongest.

MAP: Southland fires

Thousands fled several communities Thursday morning as flames consumed bone-dry terrain, devouring more than 6,500 acres in a few hours. Humidity levels dropped to as low as 4%. Walls of flames — some topping 20 feet — bore down on homes and licked up against the side of the 101 Freeway. Temperatures topped 90 degrees.

The heavy winds forced officials to ground air tankers battling the Springs fire, adding another obstacle for weary firefighters. Helicopters continued with water drops, and ground crews made several tense stands that prevented flames from getting into subdivisions in Camarillo and Newbury Park.

“It’s very unpredictable. Winds are swirling and twisting, and we don’t know what way it’s going to turn,” Ventura County Fire Department spokesman Tom Kruschke said.

With only about 5 inches of rain since July, Los Angeles is headed toward its fourth-driest year since 1877.

PHOTOS: Camarillo brush fire

Since Jan. 1, downtown Los Angeles has experienced less than 2 inches of rain. Normal for this time of the year is more than 11 inches of rainfall.

“We are at 17% of normal. That is exceptional,” said Bill Patzert, a climatologist for the Jet Propulsion Labratory. “Our hope for a drought-buster was dashed and an early fire season was guaranteed.”

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which protects about a third of the state, said that it has dealt with 150 more blazes this year compared to 2012.

Forecaster doubt that the region will get any significant rainfall through the fall. So they are counting on the onset of the marine layer that produces the “May gray” and “June gloom” cloud conditions. A heavy marine layer could bring some moisture, but they still expect a bone-dry summer and early fall.

“By the time we hit October, it’s always a race between whether the rains come first or the really strong Santa Anas come first,” Patzert said.

On Thursday, Santa Ana winds from the east pushed the fire through the Ventura County mountains toward the Pacific Ocean. Cooler on-shore coastal winds appear to slow down the Springs fire as it raced west, though firefighters worried that those winds could push the fire in unexpected directions.

Local officials said that they were surprised the fire moved so fast just a few miles from the cooler breezes of the ocean.

“We don’t often see fires at this time of year, and definitely not here,” said Sgt. Barbara Payton of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department. “We aren’t that far from the ocean, so it just doesn’t get that hot here.”

The premature fire season also has California energy suppliers worried about the potential of  raging fires knocking down transmission lines.

The absence of the troubled San Onofre nuclear plant — which has been closed for more than a year due to equipment issues and will probably remain closed through the summer — means that the region will need to import more energy from elsewhere. Those supply routes could be threatened by fires in areas where the lines run, said Stephanie McCorkle, a spokeswoman with the California Independent System Operator, which oversees most of the state’s power grid.

“This is shaping up to be a very bad start to the fire season,” McCorkle said.

As the fire continued Thursday evening, officials were still tallying the damage. The Springs fire destroyed several RVs, outbuildings and some agricultural structures. A second small fire in Riverside County burned four homes.

In Newbury Park, Jim Loper, 46, and Robert Ticktin, 51, watched from an evacuation area as firefighters battled to keep the flames out of their neighborhood. They stood at a sheriff’s command post at Dos Vientos Community Park in Newbury Park. The park’s name — meaning "two winds" in Spanish — was appropriate, as Santa Ana winds mussed the landscape and bedeviled the job of firefighting.

Loper had gone through some large wildfires when he lived in Altadena so the drill wasn’t new.

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