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Firefighters Prepare for Brush Fires With Dry Runs

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A fire races up a canyon on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, gobbling up bone-dry brush on its way to a row of expensive houses perched on higher ground.

But a helicopter appears, dropping off a work crew to clear a fire line ahead of the flames, then flies off to fill its tanks with the water it will use to help knock down the blaze.

That, on paper at least, is the way helicopter firefighting works. To help ensure that it does, firefighters and a helicopter crew from the Los Angeles County Fire Department converged on Rancho Palos Verdes on Thursday for practice.

“The helicopter is probably the most effective tool for keeping brush fires from getting out of control,” Battalion Chief Gordon Pearson said during the exercise, held on a coastal bluff near Rancho Palos Verdes City Hall. “They can make a 300-gallon water drop while we’re still pulling hoses to the fire. That can make the difference between saving houses and not saving them.”

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The drill was part of a routine program aimed at training the county’s local fire units to cooperate with the department’s helicopter crews. But fire officials say they have placed more emphasis on the program in recent years as drought conditions in the area have worsened.

The peninsula’s tinder-dry canyons are now brush fires waiting to happen, the officials say. With the fire season under way as of May 15, they are urging peninsula residents to take precautions.

Among them: clear away brush and dry grasses within 100 to 200 feet of homes, prune dead branches from trees and shrubs, clean debris from roofs.

“We haven’t had a fire here in many years, and with all this growth, deadwood and drought, the fire potential is just tremendous,” said Tim O’Neill, a county fire captain at Thursday’s drill.

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The last big brush fire to hit the Palos Verdes Peninsula occurred in 1973, when a blaze fanned by sea breezes charred 900 acres and destroyed 11 houses, causing an estimated $2 million in property damage.

Though no blaze of that dimension has occurred since, there have been scares. The most recent came on April 29, when a brush fire started in a canyon between two fairways in the Palos Verdes golf course in Palos Verdes Estates.

Firefighters soon doused the blaze, but not before it had deposited burning embers on the roof of a house on Paseo del Campo, about 600 feet away. Authorities say they do not know what caused the blaze.

Battalion Chief Rene Rigaud said the fire was particularly worrisome in light of a recent forestry report predicting that brush and deadwood on the peninsula could fuel flames capable of breaching a 79-foot gap.

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Said Rigaud grimly of the April 29 blaze: “It was a harbinger of what’s to come.”

It is to prevent such predictions from coming true that the Fire Department is staging exercises like the one held Thursday. Before the program concludes next Thursday, personnel at seven of the county’s South Bay fire stations will receive the training.

Thursday’s session, the first in this year’s program on the peninsula, included instruction on points ranging from ground-to-air communications to the preparation of safe helicopter landing sites.

Rick Cearley, a helicopter pilot with the county Fire Department, warned 15 firefighters to wet down the area where helicopters will be landing. Otherwise, he said, clouds of dust can disorient pilots and cause them to crash.

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“It’s like landing in a brown Ping-Pong ball,” Cearley said. “You don’t know where the dust ends and the ground starts.”

Firefighters filled the helicopter’s water tanks and a water drop was performed, but officials said they do dry runs in most training sessions in the interest of water conservation.

County fire officials said they have five helicopters available for aerial firefighting, with bases in Malibu, Sylmar and La Canada-Flintridge.


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