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Crews Brace for Another Dangerous Fire Season : Prevention: Areas that didn’t burn in last year’s blazes are particularly vulnerable this time around. Authorities are preparing.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Brushy areas of Ventura County that escaped last year’s massive firestorms have grown even taller and denser, providing fuel for another conflagration as the fire season enters its most dangerous period, fire authorities say.

Already, firefighters see evidence that this year’s fire season--which continues through November--may be a busy one.

Since mid-May, county fire units have responded to 21 brush fires that burned a total of 70 acres. Elsewhere, more than 30 major wildfires have broken out in eight western states, consuming thousands of acres.

“In those places that didn’t burn last year, the brush has just grown heavier and heavier,” said acting Ventura County Fire Chief Robert Holaway. “I think it’s fair to say that some areas, given the right conditions, are very explosive right now.”

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While Holaway and other county fire officials said they could not predict a repeat of last year’s cataclysmic firestorms--conflagrations that together burned an estimated 70,000 acres and destroyed more than 38 homes--they said residents should be prepared for a long, hot, extended fire season.

“We have some areas in the county where the brush hasn’t burned for 50 years,” Holaway said. “In areas like that, you can see the stuff grow to 12 to 15 feet in height--those are places that we keep an eye on during the season.”

Holaway and county Assistant Fire Chief Bob Roper, who was one of the commanders in last year’s response to the firestorms, said Wildwood Regional Park in Thousand Oaks is particularly vulnerable, given its hills and canyons and the fact that many homes lining the park have wood shake roofs.

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The Ventura foothills, Camarillo Heights and east county areas such as Box and Carlisle canyons are also at high risk for wildfires, they said.

Added to that list is a 200,000-acre chunk of land that runs east from Ojai to the Golden State Freeway and generally north of California 126, which is of high concern to the U. S. Forest Service, the agency responsible for patrolling and managing that remote area.

A key to whether a given area burns is the amount of moisture in the brush. Both county and Forest Service crews are frequently “cooking” samples of brush in laboratory ovens to determine how much moisture--and how combustible--a given area might be.

“We know the fuel moisture level is going down,” said Sandi Wells, a County Fire Department spokeswoman. “Currently, our samples are showing that the moisture level is close to being on par with last year’s numbers during the firestorms.”

In the Ojai area, where the so-called Wheel fire burned 1,650 acres last year, Bob Sommer, a battalion chief with the U. S. Forest Service, said his agency is not taking any chances and is doubling normal staffing where needed.

“For instance, we are putting two people in our patrol vehicles--the idea is to get more eyes out there looking for possible (fire) starts,” Sommer said. “If we see a period of sustained east winds like we did last October, we could be in for some real trouble.”

The County Fire Department, along with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, is forming a specialized version of the Neighborhood Watch program to look for arsonists during the height of the season.

“Basically, during the times when the winds come, the temperatures soar and the humidity drops is when we need people keeping their eyes open,” Wells said. “We are going to teach them to look for vehicles or individuals that look out of place. If something does look weird, we want them to call it in. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

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Wells said the county is recognized across the state for having one of the more aggressive fire prevention programs. This year alone, more than 21,000 brush- or weed-abatement notices have been sent to homeowners demanding that they clear at least 100-foot swaths of brush from around structures.

Assistant Chief Roper said county and California Department of Forestry crews will not only be cutting brush away from structures but also plan 12 prescribed burns of brushy areas during the next five years.

The schedule is determined by a detailed environmental review of each proposed burn.

Safe weather conditions must also be present or the burns are canceled.

Roper said that county fire stations in the high-hazard areas will be reinforced during the height of the fire season with extra staff, engines and water-tenders.

But Roper said that the situation can become so volatile that even areas that burned during last year’s fire can burn again, possibly bringing flames to unconsumed brush.

“We’ve seen situations where the small light grasses that have grown back in burned areas act as wicks to taller, unburned fuel nearby,” Roper said. “There are some areas, given the right amount of heat and low humidity, where everything burns.”


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