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Fire Danger Shrouds Biggest County Park

Times Staff Writer

Lou Flores surveyed the wooded hills of Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park in south Orange County and worried.

“I really like working here,” said Flores, 36, a county park ranger. “It’s just fantastic. So I’m very concerned that we don’t have any fires here like the one that broke out over at the national forest. We’re constantly looking for any type of fire danger.”

A sign at the entrance to the 7,800-acre park off Ortega Highway graphically alerted visitors: “Fire Danger Today: Very High.”

Valerie Burkhart, a park employee who greets visitors at the gate, said: “We’re all very conscious of the fire danger. No campfires are allowed now in the park.”

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On June 20, a roaring brush fire erupted in the Cleveland National Forest, just five miles east of Caspers Park. The blaze took five days to contain and scorched 7,880 acres of once-verdant wilderness. Authorities have determined that it was caused by humans, but they don’t know how or whether it was by accident.

The fire came close to, but never within, the rugged, scenic Caspers Park acreage. But the tinder-dry conditions that made the national forest prime for destruction pose the same potential for the county park.

A creek that bisects the park is now dry. The blazing summer sun has withered once-green brush into brown and yellow straw. Even the green leaves on sycamores and live oak trees in the park appear brittle and fire-prone.

After three years of below-average winter rain, all of Orange County has dangerous fire conditions this summer, according to the County Fire Department. But officials in the county’s Environmental Management Agency have said Caspers poses a particular danger because of its size and isolation. The park is in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains, about eight miles east of San Juan Capistrano.

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Tony Gimbrone, parks district supervisor for the county EMA, said that since Caspers is the county’s biggest park, it also poses the biggest problem.

“It’s already very hot and very dry in that area, and we’re not into the worst of our fire season yet,” Gimbrone said. “I really get worried when the temperatures go above 100 degrees and the Santa Ana winds are blowing.”

This week, only gentle winds brushed the hills of Caspers Park. But park employees nonetheless anxiously watched for any signs of telltale smoke.

“We still allow cigarette smoking but no campfires using wood,” said Ranger Flores. “For cooking, campers can use only charcoal briquettes.”

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Some young campers at one of the tenting sites in the park said that they fully supported the restrictions.

Cyrena Waterbury, 18, of Laguna Beach said: “We can’t have open fire pits and stuff like we used to when I was young, but that’s good. Last night, we roasted marshmallows over charcoal, and it was OK. We know about the fire danger. Definitely.”

A companion, Jessica Camp, 18, also of Laguna Beach, agreed: “Many of us worry about that. We’ve been smoking, but we’ve been careful.”

Colin North, 18, from Liverpool, England, said the arid hills were a unique experience for him.

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“Everything I see here is just totally different to me,” he said. Although he likes wood-burning campfires, North readily gave them up at Caspers because of the danger.

Gimbrone, of the county EMA, said: “Fortunately for us, most of the people who go to Caspers Park are people who know and care about the environment. They’re what I call ‘granola people.’ You know, the people who’re going there to watch the birds and study the plants. Some of the other campers might go in there, but they quickly say, ‘Holy, holy, it’s hot here,’ and they go to the beaches. But the hikers and campers who go to Caspers Park tend to be people who are real environmentalists.”

Nonetheless, rangers in the park mark the hot summer days with continued scrutiny for the careless camper or thoughtless cigarette smoker.

Ranger Flores said his concern about brush fires intensified after he drove recently to areas of Cleveland National Forest left charred and barren by the recent blaze.

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“I thought it looked like a nuclear holocaust,” Flores said. “We don’t want a fire like that to hit Caspers Park.”


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