For two years, Los Angeles County firefighters have wanted to burn 100 acres of chaparral and dead shrubbery in the hills above La Canada Flintridge. Their goal is to create a firebreak that would protect about 500 homes from brush fires.
First nature held them up as strong winds and dry weather made conditions too dangerous for burning. Next, from August, 1985, through February of this year, firefighters suspended controlled burning because they could not obtain sufficient liability insurance. Fire officials then grappled with a homeowner who would not give permission to burn on his land.
Last week things came full circle with the return of hot, dry weather.
Firefighters said Tuesday's sprinkle over the Southland would have helped had it developed into a real rain, but that the wind was still too strong for a safe burn.
And that leaves city and fire officials worried and frustrated.
'We're Very Concerned'
"We really want to get that burn done--we're very concerned about the fire hazard," said Don Otterman, city manager of La Canada Flintridge.
"We're going into the critical season. It is necessary that this be done right away," said Capt. Milan Rupel of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, the man who will supervise the controlled burn.
Officials of the county Fire Department, which provides fire protection to La Canada Flintridge, said the dense brush in Winery and Beckley canyons above the city constitutes a big danger.
Capt. Scott E. Franklin, vegetation management coordinator, said, "That's really heavy fuel in there. It'll burn like a miniature atomic event."
Fire also causes erosion, which can lead to flooding. That poses a second danger, especially for hillside homes, firefighters say.
Otterman said some local residents appear oblivious to the problem.
Lack of Community Concern
"I don't think there's enough concern in the community. People feel 'it will never happen to me,' " Otterman said.
La Canada Flintridge has been relatively lucky so far. In January, 1984, a fire that swept out of Winery Canyon destroyed 11 homes and threatened to jump south of Foothill Boulevard. But about 500 homes on the south side of the boulevard were saved when the wind changed and the fire took off in another direction.
The following month, city officials called a public meeting to discuss fire prevention. Only 15 residents showed up, Otterman said.
Since the 1984 fire, firefighters have tried unsuccessfully to organize a controlled burn. In 1985, after the weather thwarted several attempts, the burn again was delayed when the state was unable to obtain comprehensive liability coverage for state forestry and county firefighters.
The state purchases such insurance policies in case fires burn out of control and damage property.
Legislation for Insurance
In February, emergency state legislation was approved to allow government entities to become self-insured. By April, Los Angeles County was ready to resume burning brushland.
La Canada Flintridge, meanwhile, obtained permission to burn on private land from 14 of 15 homeowners with property along the burn path. The one holdout, Walter Oates, agreed last year to allow burning on his land, but changed his mind this year when city officials came around with a new agreement.
"There's no way they can guarantee it won't burn out of control," Oates said. He owns a 40-acre hillside plot on which he plans to build a home, and does not want the land charred.
Otterman said firefighters plan to burn around the Oates land. They hope to carry out the controlled burn before fall, when warm Santa Ana winds are expected to worsen conditions. Scant rainfall and an unusually large amount of dead brush--known as dieback--make the hillsides particularly susceptible to brush fires this year, Franklin said.
Flares and Chemicals
Firefighters plan to start the La Canada Flintridge burn with road flares and chemicals dropped over the brush by helicopter. Two water-dropping helicopters, six engine companies and 10 fire crews will be on hand to control the burn, Franklin said.
Last week, firefighters found that moisture in the hills above La Canada Flintridge was within safe bounds, but winds were not right. Franklin called off the burn when the helium balloons he sent up blew to the southwest. That meant the wind might turn into a Santa Ana and blow the fire down into the city, he said.
In the next five years, fire officials hope to burn 500 acres in Winery Canyon to serve as a firebreak. Environmentalists generally support controlled burning because the low-intensity fires aid in regeneration of native plants. Young, green vegetation grows for several years after such fires and does not burn as fiercely.
Another option is to use bulldozers to clear a firebreak, but firefighters say it causes erosion and is at least 10 times more expensive. Last year, when the county suspended controlled burning, the Fire Department used cattle to chew down vegetation in the West San Fernando Valley.
The Los Angeles County Fire Department has carried out controlled burns on 14,000 acres since 1981 without major incident, Franklin said.
Earlier this month, he said, he supervised a two-day controlled burn of 180 acres in Stone Canyon.