Hot weather’s return sparks California wildfire concerns
July 16, 2010
LOS ANGELES (AP) – The abrupt arrival of summer heat after unseasonably cool and damp weather in Southern California has increased the risk of wildfires in the region as grass and brush withers into tinder dry fuel.
A handful of fires have already broken out this week as sunshine quickly sapped moisture from vegetation.
“It doesn’t take very many days,” Los Angeles County fire Inspector Matt Levesque said Wednesday. “Any 20-degree rise in temperature, the humidity drops by half.”
Temperatures around Los Angeles, which had been well below normal, surged into the 90s.
On Tuesday, small brush fires in the San Gabriel Valley city of Walnut and in Ventura County briefly threatened homes while a fire sparked during a Marine Corps exercise burned nearly 4.7 square miles of land at Camp Pendleton in northern San Diego County.
Ventura County fire Capt. Ron Oatman said the fire near the city of Camarillo came on the first cloudless day of the summer, lowering moisture levels in the vegetation.
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“That sun starts shining on brush that’s ready to burn and fires get going,” he said.
The recent cool weather was a double-edged sword, said Battalion Chief Julie Hutchinson of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
It reduced fire risk and made blazes easier to contain, but it also created a bigger crop of grass, which burns fiercely and fast.
A rainy winter already meant an abundance of grass, even in the deserts, and it will dry out as summer progresses, Hutchinson said.
An hour of sunshine after a foggy morning is enough to dry out grass, she said.
“We live in a Mediterranean climate. It’s going to get hot. It’s going to get dry,” Hutchinson said. “This rain has kind of prolonged the inevitable for us.”
The state agency, which has a year-round fire season, reached peak staffing around Memorial Day in Southern California and on July 1 in the north. It has around 9,000 permanent and seasonal workers on duty. Budget cuts have not affected engines, crews, aircraft or other response teams, Hutchinson said.
In the past, major fires have erupted as early as March and April. Last month, lightning strikes caused some blazes in Northern California.
This year, a major concern involves millions of dead trees killed by pests, especially in the San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountains in the inland region east of Los Angeles, Hutchinson said.
The trees are “for all intents and purposes, a lot of firewood,” she said. “When something burns through there, that stuff is tinder-dry.”
A relatively new pest, the gold-spotted oak borer, also has killed tens of thousands of trees in San Diego County and is moving north, she said.
Wildfires can crop up any time in Los Angeles County, where the Fire Department covers a region of 4,000 square miles that range from beaches to oak-studded canyons to brushy desert.
Firefighters caught a break as the region got a period of thicker and longer-lasting overcast than the typical “June gloom” weather.
“A lot of times we’ve already had quite a few fires up in the Antelope Valley, the high desert areas,” Levesque said. “I wouldn’t say it’s changed the fire season, it’s just delayed it.”
The most dangerous time of year is the fall, when grass and brush have had an entire summer to lose moisture and hot, dry Santa Ana winds begin to blow, Levesque said.
Los Angeles County’s official fire season begins on Sept. 1, although last year’s enormous Station fire began in early August. That 250-square-mile blaze – the largest in county history – killed two firefighters and destroyed 89 homes around the San Gabriel Mountains.
Levesque said fire officials aren’t willing to predict the ferocity of the upcoming season.
“Every year has the potential for a large fire season, just given the nature of where we are,” Levesque said.
However, areas such as the high desert and Malibu historically have burned over and over again, he said.
Fire officials have been preparing for the season by evaluating risks and stocking up on equipment, such as contracting to hire two Canadian Super Scooper water-dropping amphibious airplanes that will become available on Sept. 1.
Homeowners in fire-prone areas are required every year to clear brush away from their houses, and most have heeded the May and June deadlines, Levesque said.
Those that don’t will find the county doing the work and adding the cost to their tax bills, he said.
“Any house that doesn’t clear their area can become a trigger point and can cause a catastrophic fire for the entire neighborhood,” Levesque said.
On Saturday, firefighters staged a drill in the Topanga Canyon area of the Santa Monica Mountains west of Los Angeles to work out evacuation plans, he said.
Associated Press Writer John Antczak contributed to this report.