County to Close Off Dangerous Fire Areas

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Casting a leery eye on an overgrowth of vegetation in Orange County, fire officials will declare thousands of acres of open land off limits to the public today.

County fire officials concluded a relatively uneventful season in January when they reopened more than 158,000 acres to the public. Despite fears that last year's fire season would be one of the most devastating in a decade, fires blackened about 180 acres, in contrast with more than 13,000 acres destroyed the year before, Orange County Fire Department records show.

Fire officials, who conducted a series of annual wildfire exercises Wednesday, warned that weather and vegetation conditions still favor a major blaze.

Heavy rain this winter gave life to acres of grasslands and helped thick chaparral grow. The grasses have since become a dry, golden-brown carpet that could become fuel for major fires in wild areas.

"The conditions are there," warned County Fire Chief Larry J. Holms as he helped oversee the morning exercises in the Red Hill and Lemon Heights areas.

"All it's going to take is Santa Ana winds" to sweep over the county and further parch vegetation, he said.

"We're in for a long, hot, dry summer, similar to 1988," Holms said, referring to the year when a fire along Ortega Highway in September blackened more than 2,300 acres. "There is lots of potential for fire throughout the state and in our area (due to) dead vegetation because of drought."

The county's annual fire season means thousands of hikers, campers, bikers and nature lovers will have to stay out of certain grasslands until the rainy season returns and fire officials declare the season over.

It is too early to predict whether the current fire season will be like those of the past three years, which have stretched well into January--a trend brought about in large part by California's lingering drought.

While some people may get away with spoken warnings on the first days of fire season, prevention inspectors will hand out misdemeanor citations to people who venture into forbidden areas starting Saturday, County Fire Department Capt. Dan Young said.

Fire officials said most large fires in open land are caused by people. To reduce the risk of a fire starting intentionally or unintentionally, authorities post signs telling people to stay out of large tracts of unincorporated land in the eastern part of the county and areas of Anaheim, Brea, Orange, San Clemente and Laguna Beach, Young said. The closings do not restrict a property owner's use of land.

With the backdrop of the disastrous fire in the Oakland Hills last year, about 200 city and county firefighters--including about 40 inmates from the James A. Musick Branch Jail in Irvine--conducted a three-hour drill with firetrucks and a water-toting helicopter in tony neighborhoods northwest of Tustin Ranch Golf Club.

"It's just shaking the cobwebs loose, to get them thinking about things they haven't been thinking about all winter," Young said.

The drills, scheduled to continue this morning and Friday, test the ability of crews and commanders to quickly evaluate and fight an imaginary fire threatening homes.

Fire officials have sent notices to thousands of homes that border grassy areas, telling residents how to protect property.

Young said clearing dead weeds, grass and debris in a 100-foot radius around a house can help slow a fire's spread.

He also suggested using fire rings or barbecue pits for any open fires and urged anyone who sees people in closed areas to call local firefighters or the County Fire Department.

Orange County Fire Season Opens

To reduce the 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.

Fire Prevention:

* Use only fire rings and barbecue pits for any open warming or cooking fires.

* Smoking is prohibited in hazardous fire areas.

* Keep matches and lighters away from children and prevent misuse.

* Discharge of fireworks is prohibited in the wild-lad areas, all unincorporated areas and most cities within Orange County.

Major Fires In Orange County Since 1985

Date Area Acres Nov. 24, 1991 San Clemente 180 July 12, 1990 Yorba Linda 6,927 June 27, 1990 Carbon Canyon 6,600 Sept. 5, 1988 Ortega Highway 2,384 Sept. 12, 1987 Silverado Canyon 5,000 Aug. 11, 1985 Telegraph Canyon 1,400 July 2, 1985 Green River area 750

Source: Orange County Fire Department

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