Santa Ana Winds Prompt Fire Alert

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Anticipating two more days of desert-dry Santa Ana winds, fire officials shifted into high alert Monday at the increasing risk of sudden blazes like a small one that blackened brush along the Orange County-Riverside County border.

The winds hit nearly 40 m.p.h. on Monday, swirling dust and debris across roads and fanning the flames of the 4 1/2-acre brush fire that broke out in a rugged, mountainous area above the Riverside Freeway near Green River Road.

Although little wind-related damage was reported elsewhere, fire officials battling the brush fire deployed more than a dozen engines and kept others on standby.

"The concern is that it will spread rapidly because of the wind," Orange County Fire Department spokeswoman Kathleen Cha Monday afternoon while the fire still raged. Fire crews from Orange and Riverside counties managed to contain the blaze, however.

Area fire departments, meanwhile, braced for a continuing threat, despite last weekend's light rainfall. Riverside County Volunteer Fire Capt. Tom Sherman explained that the winds have sucked the wildlands dry of all moisture left from the rain.

"When we get a small rainfall and then a Santa Ana, the moisture doesn't have time to settle in," Sherman said. "We need at least a good inch of rain to make any ground moisture."

Jim Gerspach, a battalion chief for the Huntington Beach Fire Department, said the fire potential remains equally high in urban areas. Gerspach noted that residential blazes, fanned by the winds, can leap from roof to roof.

The Santa Ana condition, caused by a strong high-pressure system settling over Southern California and drawing in dry desert winds, is expected to weaken by Wednesday, according to National Weather Service specialist Pat Rowe. Wind gusts of up to 35 m.p.h. are predicted in the canyons and passes until then.

Highest sustained wind gusts recorded in Orange County on Monday were 37 m.p.h. in El Toro and 35 m.p.h. in Fullerton. The taped pilots' advisory at John Wayne Airport warned of severe wind turbulence below 8,000 feet.

The brush fire Monday broke out about 3 p.m. in an inaccessible area of dense chaparral at the 1,800-foot level of the Santa Ana Mountains. It was brought under control by 5 p.m. Cause of the fire was undetermined, although speculation was that it might have been ignited by a spark from one of the power lines in the area.

The Orange County Fire Department dispatched six engines. The Riverside County department dispatched seven engines and a hand crew to clear brush. The U.S. Forest Service also sent in two engines, as the fire bordered on the Cleveland National Forest, according to Cheri Mello, a Riverside County fire dispatcher.

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