Fearing the worst fire season in a decade may be upon us, Orange County fire officials on Wednesday announced the immediate closure of a wide swath of rural countryside to the public.
"The warm weather ahead and the anticipated dry Santa Ana winds will cause hillside grass and brush to dry to the point where they are a significant fire hazard," said Orange County Fire Department Capt. Dan Young. "All fire departments that provide fire protection to Orange County communities have cause for serious concern."
Fire officials from numerous firefighting agencies joined with Orange County officials to sound the alarm. The combined impact of the five-year drought, the winter freeze, and, ironically, the March rains that turned Southland communities green add up to a potentially disastrous summer, they said.
As lush carpets of grass wilt this summer, they could serve as torches to fuel tinder-dry brush on hillsides that died due to the drought or the freeze.
Last year, more than 200,000 acres of California wilderness burned in 7,500 separate fires. The bulk of the 864 homes that were destroyed or severely damaged were in Santa Barbara, where a massive arson-fueled blaze caused more than $250 million in damage.
"This year has the potential of being worse than last year," said Orange County Fire Department Chief Larry Holms at the press conference.
At the Orange news conference, and at a similar one in Los Angeles, fire officials stressed that residents should take special precautions, including cutting back overgrown grass and brush, to protect their homes from a potential blaze.
"We can only help you to protect the property to the extent you've done your job first," Holms said. The Fire Department has hired private contractors to help firefighters clear the thousands of acres of brush.
For several weeks, fire officials have been circulating flyers ordering homeowners in outlying areas to cut back overgrown vegetation, install spark arresters on chimneys and clear their roofs of pine needles and other dried debris. Homeowners who fail to heed warnings by firefighters face fines.
Fire officials have been targetting more than 700 acres of overgrown vacant lots in Carbon, Gypsum, Trabuco, Santiago and other, smaller, canyons, Young said.
The U.S. Forest Service, also concerned about wildfires, has already opened up fire stations in Cleveland National Forest, using a $1.95-million federal grant.
The areas designated off-limits by the Orange County Fire Department include parts of Laguna Beach, San Clemente, Anaheim, Brea and Orange, Young said.
The closures, however, do not restrict a property owner's use of personal property.
"It is intended to protect landowners from trespassers who frequently cause wild-land fires," Young said in a prepared statement. The closure does not include Cleveland National Forest.
Signs will be posted in off-limits areas, Young said.
Orange County Fire Season Opens
To reduce potential property loss and threat to life, and to help prevent wild-land fires, the Orange County Fire Department warned that the fire season has arrived.
Community Involvement Fire Protection
* Use only fire rings and barbeque pits for any warming or cooking fires.
* Smoking is prohibited in hazardous fire areas.
* Keep matches/cigarette lighters away from children and prevent any misuse.
* Discharge of fireworks is prohibited in the wild-land areas, all unincorporated areas and in most cities within Orange County.
Source: Orange County Fire Department