A year after massive brush fires consumed more than 600 residences in Santa Barbara and Glendale, Southern California fire authorities are bracing for a summer they fear could prove even worse.
"The fire season we're looking at is as bad as we've ever faced," declared Los Angeles Fire Chief Donald O. Manning at a Wednesday morning news conference attended by state and federal forestry officials, as well as chiefs from Orange, Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
The ranking firefighters said they were sounding the alarm because of the combined impact of the five-year drought, the winter freeze and, ironically, the March rains that turned Southland communities green.
As lush carpets of grass wilt this summer, they could serve as torches to fuel tinder-dry hillside brush that died from the drought or the freeze, officials said.
"The so-called 'March Miracle' . . . promoted the growth of the grasses and the other fine fuels that are going to cause us a major problem," said James G. Dykes, southern regional chief of the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "No matter where you look in the state of California, the news is not good."
Dykes said recent estimates reveal that there are more than 10 billion board feet of dead or dying timber in state woodland areas, the bulk of it in San Bernardino, Riverside and Los Angeles counties. In San Bernardino last week, a vegetation management control burn demonstrated that dead brush is already igniting as quickly as it does during the hot, dry mid-summer months "even though there was some green grass visible on the ground," Dykes said.
Last year, more than 200,000 acres of California wild land burned in 7,500 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.
Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Rich Peterson said that efforts to contain similar blazes could prove difficult this summer because of manpower and equipment constraints brought on by county, city and state budget woes. About 1,700 firefighters from neighboring jurisdictions were called in to help battle the Santa Barbara blaze, he said. But with departments across the Southland forced to make service cuts, mutual-aid pacts could be one of the first items to suffer.
Peterson said his department faces a $1.5-million cut in its $17-million budget. Neighboring Ventura County is dealing with a 5-to-10% budget reduction, Fire Chief George Lund said.
The Los Angeles County Fire Department has been forced to lay off 60 seasonal fire prevention aides who help clear brush that can kindle major conflagrations. Chief P. Michael Freeman said he will ask the Board of Supervisors to consider seeking a supplemental $14-per-home tax to help fund fire services.
In kicking off the fire season, Orange County officials announced that they were closing thousands of acres of county woodland to the public for the remainder of the summer. In addition, the U.S. Forest Service said it was imposing restrictions on campfires and smoking in Angeles, Los Padres, Cleveland and San Bernardino national forests. Until conditions improve, most campfires will be permitted only in designated campgrounds and smoking will be banned except in cars and campgrounds, according to federal fire management officer Tom Harbour.
Fire authorities speaking at the Franklin Canyon press conference issued a plea to homeowners to help by clearing their yards of dried vegetation.
"We can only help you to protect your property to the extent you have done the job first," said Orange County Fire Chief Larry Holms. "We can't do it on our own."
Suggested measures include clearing brush and grass at least 30 feet from homes and maintaining a 10-foot clearance from trees to chimneys. Roofs also should be kept free of leaves and pine needles, and indoor fireplaces should be equipped with a spark-arresting device.
The danger of wild land fires exists throughout the region, but several chiefs said that current conditions have sparked particular concerns about specific canyon and mountain neighborhoods.
Los Angeles city and county officials said they are worried about San Gabriel Valley foothill communities such as Glendora and La Canada Flintridge and hillside city neighborhoods from Los Feliz to Pacific Palisades. In Orange County, acute hazards exist for housing tracts situated next to small undeveloped grassy areas. In Santa Barbara, coastal communities face a substantial fire threat from hot afternoon winds that sweep down from the mountains.
According to Peterson, the threat of grass fires is particularly acute in Santa Barbara because ranchers, anticipating a continuation of the drought, moved cattle that normally graze on what turned out this year to be a bumper crop of grass.
In recent years, regional fire officials have held annual press conferences stating that devastating fire seasons were possible due to factors ranging from the drought to bark beetles to a rare fungus that kills chaparral.
The blazes last summer proved that the authorities are hardly Chicken Littles, Freeman said.
"We do say it every year but we want to remind the public every year," he declared. "The bottom line is the danger is here every year."
Fire Prevention Tips
The prolonged drought and the winter freeze have created a significant fire hazard from dead brush. State and local fire officials suggest homeowners take the following precautions against brush fires:
A. Maintain a 10-foot clearance from trees to all chimney outlets.
B. Use chimney spark arresters.
C. Clear roof of leaves and needles.
D. Make sure address is clearly visible from the street.
E. Clear vegetation from within 30 feet of dwelling.
F. Maintain clear access from street to dwelling.