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Firefighters Find Drop of Hope : Weather: Light rain snarls traffic but leaves officials optimistic that the fire threat will be less than in previous years.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

November began on Wednesday with a light rain that sprinkled the San Fernando Valley, clogging traffic and spoiling golf games, but allowing firefighters a day to relax from the worries of fire season.

On the two-year anniversary of the deadly Topanga-Malibu blaze, Los Angeles County fire officials said rain is always welcome. But they warned the fire danger on brush-covered foothills remains as high as ever.

“Let me put it this way--in Southern California we can have brush fires at any time of the year,” said Paul Rippens, chief of the county’s Forestry Division. “This rain is nice and we hope it continues, but it certainly hasn’t lessened the potential for fire.”

Yet with continued rain forecast for the weekend, Rippens and other firefighters are optimistic the fire threat will be lower than in years past. “The possibility of more rain can make a big difference,” Rippens said.

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Just as important, he said, are light Santa Ana winds so far this year.

Bruce Rockwell, a meteorology technician at the National Weather Service in Oxnard, said Wednesday’s showers dumped between one-10th and one-quarter inch of moisture in the Valley.

Forecasters were predicting more sprinkles tonight and early Friday. They warned Saturday and Sunday could be both the coolest and wettest days so far this fall.

Dean Jones, a meteorologist for WeatherData, Inc., which provides forecasts for The Times, said the rain is coming from a weak storm traveling from the Gulf of Alaska.

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“I don’t see anything bright and sunny until the end of the weekend, although Thursday doesn’t look too bad,” Jones said. “We’re calling for mainly morning fog and partly cloudy conditions and maybe some sunny skies in some areas.”

Despite the early rain, Rockwell said long-range forecasts predict a slightly drier winter than usual. He said the heavy rains of the past two years were unusual and that, statistically speaking, it would be extremely rare for this year to measure up.

Rockwell added that this year’s Santa Anas have been cooler and less fierce than usual, and the drier winter might benefit residents. Wet years are blamed for mudslides and flooding--especially in fire-ravaged hillsides.

Rippens acknowledged that rainy years present a paradox to firefighters: They reduce current fire dangers but provide plenty of food to brush and grass that might fuel the next year’s brush fire. “It is a two-edged sword,” Rippens said. “Personally, I’ll take the rainfall and let the grass grow.”

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County officials stopped marking a specific fire season, instead saying “It’s all year ‘round,” Rippens said. He added there have been fewer fires this year compared to past years.

On Wednesday, traffic accidents on rain-slicked freeways between 5:30 and 9 a.m. more than doubled from a weekday average of 100 to more than 260, according to the California Highway Patrol. No one was killed on Los Angeles County freeways.

Sgt. Ernie Garcia said that for commuters, though, “it was slow going.”

Times staff writer Bob Pool contributed to this story.

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