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Fire Crews Prepare for Worst This Year

John Wells can read the future in the arid leaves of the oak trees and shrubs of Orange County’s canyons: It’s going to be a busy summer.

Because of scant winter rains and postcard-sunny weather, the local mountains are way ahead of schedule for fire danger, said Wells, president and CEO of Airborne Fire Attack, an Aliso Viejo-based company that provides two huge water-tanker planes to the California Department of Forestry.

“It’s going to be a wild year,” Wells said from John Wayne Airport, where maintenance crews completed work on one of the company’s California water bombers.

A half-dozen episodes of Santa Ana winds this spring also helped to create fire danger conditions more typical of late October, said Capt. Scott Brown, public information officer for the Orange County Fire Authority. So far, the county has closed 178,000 acres of back country to minimize fire exposure.

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“All those conditions combined have put us in extremely dangerous position,” Brown said. “It doesn’t take much to start a fire. The Coto de Caza fire [two weeks ago] was started by a mower.”

The fire season officially started May 1, but a rash of early brush fires in April mobilized fire crews.

So far this year, Wells’ two bombers--reconditioned Navy patrol aircraft used to chase submarines--have seen action in 19 Southern California fires, dropping 140,000 gallons of fire retardant, or in Wells’ lexicon, “the red stuff.” A plane was used to fight the Coto de Caza fire, scooping up extra loads of water from Doheny State Beach to douse the fast-moving blaze, with the help of a helicopter tanker owned by the fire authority.

To ready the plane, crews load 1,000 pounds of fire retardant--more effective than plain water--for the first drop, Wells said. The plane then circles over the fire zone, drops its load and heads toward the nearest large lake or ocean. It takes about 10 seconds to scoop a full load of water as the plane skims the surface at 70 mph.

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Certified a year ago to fly water drops, the company assisted on 33 fires last year and dropped 285,000 gallons of fire suppressant, Wells said. The chemical suppressant, called Phos-chek and manufactured by Monsanto, douses the fire and turns into fertilizer.

The fire authority is gearing up to deal with its busiest time for public-awareness--the Fourth of July holiday. An annual Fourth of July activity plan includes beefing up staffing and equipment readiness. But the best deterrent is lots of firefighters in the community reminding folks of the dangers of fireworks, Brown said.


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