Firefighters Brace for Hot, Dangerous Independence Day

Times Staff Writer

Firefighters throughout Southern California are braced for what is shaping up as one of the hottest--and most dangerous--Independence Days on record.

Unusually dry brush and sizzling temperatures that have combined to fuel devastating fires throughout the state, have increased the tension level at most Southland fire stations as personnel prepare for the added hazard of the holiday's traditional use of fireworks.

"We're prepared for the worst," said Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Mike Pierson, adding that this year's hazardous conditions will only aggravate what has historically been the busiest day of the year for firefighters.

Fire officials in Los Angeles County have also urged holiday celebrants to refrain from using fireworks at home, recommending that they instead attend professionally staged fireworks shows still scheduled at parks, high schools and stadiums.

However, one such show scheduled in Burbank and most events in Ventura County were canceled because of the fire danger, authorities said.

A fireworks display at the Los Angeles Coliseum was called off for a different reason, lack of ticket sales, an official said.

"We're looking at a potentially disastrous weekend" if adverse weather conditions persist and if residents neglect to use fireworks safely, Los Angeles County Fire Chief John W. Englund said. He particularly cautioned against the use of illegal bottle rockets--missile-like fireworks that in past years have landed on roofs and vacant fields causing about 85% of Fourth of July fires.

Englund said that high temperatures, low humidity and extremely dry combustible materials--"including houses"--have contributed to the worst conditions leading into the Fourth of July that he has seen in his 30-year career.

The chief also asked for cooperation in quickly reporting fires, as well as in reporting any sightings of suspected arsonists.

Skywriters will fly across the county during the holiday, urging citizens to report any such information by calling 1-800-47-ARSON. A $5,000 reward is offered for information leading to the apprehension of an arsonist, he said.

Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Pat Bradshaw said there are three factors that create dangerous fire conditions: hot weather, fuel and an ignition source.

"We have two of three," he said. "Man is usually the third."

The county plans to deploy up to 100 additional firefighters over the holiday, as well as to keep an additional 200 on telephone standby, Englund said. This represents about a one-third increase over a normal weekend's staffing.

State Sen. William Campbell (R-Hacienda Heights), who along with Englund attended a Wednesday afternoon press conference in Los Angeles after visiting the site of a raging 26,000-acre fire near Ojai in Ventura County, said city and county fire officials across the state are taking similar precautionary measures.

"The state is on fire," Campbell said, describing the site of thousands of charred acres that he saw during a plane trip across the state.

The U.S. Forest Service has declared red-flag alerts at all of its national forests in Southern California--from Sierra National Forest near Fresno to the Mexican border, spokesman Bob Swinford said.

Los Angeles city fire officials said they also plan to respond to the hazardous conditions with additional men and equipment. And all city firefighters will be on call throughout the holiday weekend, Fire Department spokesman Gary Sviner said.

Last Fourth of July, there were 122 fireworks-related fires in Los Angeles alone. Although fireworks have been outlawed in the city since 1942, fireworks were responsible for 19 injuries and $132,000 in property damage last year, Sviner said. The figures represent a drastic reduction in incidents since 1981, when the department began a massive public awareness campaign against the use of fireworks, he said.

Los Angeles County fire officials reported that from mid-June to mid-July last year, there were 975 fires that resulted in 157 fireworks-related injuries and about $375,000 in property damage.

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