Dry Lands, New Year’s Crowds Put O.C. on Edge


With New Year’s celebrations just around the corner, Orange County police and fire agencies are gearing up for crowds, complaints--and an unusual fire threat for this time of year.

The unseasonably warm temperatures, accompanied by Santa Ana winds, have parched the Southern California landscape.

“We’re praying for a little drizzle,” said Ken Soltis, a Fire Department spokesman in Costa Mesa, where sales of so-called safe and sane fireworks begin today and continue through Friday.


Firefighters Tuesday were still mopping up areas of Monday’s Trabuco Canyon blaze, a 38-acre fire that came close to homes but did not destroy any structures.

“If we get a call now through the weekend in the county’s wild land region, we will be immediately sending out a helicopter, 10 firetrucks and bulldozers,” said Capt. Paul Hunter of the Orange County Fire Authority.

The danger, Hunter said, comes from a lack of rain that has left wild land shrubs tinder dry. Normally fire season ends in October, but with less than half an inch of rain thus far this rainy season and the forecast calling for more warm weather, the fire season has been extended and remains critical.

In Los Angeles, it is the seventh driest rainy season since 1877. Downtown has received less than half an inch of rain since July 1, compared with an average of 4.7 inches for the period.

In Southern California, humidity is hovering around 20% in the daytime, compared with the usual 50% to 90%, said Gary Ryan, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Oxnard.

High pressure has kept storms from moving south of Canada.

But a glimmer of hope could be on the horizon in the form of cooler temperatures and a switch in the winds.


“On Friday, you can expect higher humidity, and it will be cooler along the coast, getting cooler through the weekend,” said Stacey Johnstone, a meteorologist with WeatherData, which provides forecasts for The Times.

For New Year’s Day, temperatures will hover in the upper 60s to low 70s.

Police Prepare for Revelers

The warm weather ushering in the year 2000 is a mixed blessing, said police officials, who have beefed up their ranks in anticipation of larger-than-normal crowds of revelers.

In Huntington Beach, where thousands often flock to the city pier and downtown Main Street for such events as Fourth of July, police have added to the number of officers deployed in patrol cars.

No city events are planned, but as a precaution, the city’s Emergency Operation Center will be opened at 6 p.m. Any boisterous people, including those with fireworks, could be arrested and prosecuted, said Lt. Charles Thomas.

In Santa Ana, police have increased staffing levels by about a third in anticipation of problems that might develop from people celebrating the milestone year, said Sgt. Raul Luna.

“We will have investigators and administrative people in uniform on that evening and other officers in reserve at the police department who will be available to respond, even if there’s a mutual aid call outside the city,” Luna said.


Despite warm weather and the potential for fire, three cities--Garden Grove, Stanton and Costa Mesa--have approved the sale of the so-called safe and sane variety of fireworks.

In California, legislation passed in 1998 allows cities and counties to authorize fireworks sales any time from 9 a.m. Dec. 26 until midnight Jan. 1.

Though cities do not expect landslide business, they do believe sales will be brisk because of the Year 2000.

Garden Grove and Costa Mesa, for example, granted permits to about 70 sale sites, compared with more than 100 in a typical Fourth of July period.

In Costa Mesa, the fire department recommended a ban on the sale of fireworks but was overruled by the City Council. The department, which assigns 32 firefighters daily, will add an extra crew of four to a truck, whose duty is to rove throughout the city on New Year’s Eve.

In addition, fire prevention literature will be handed out at all fireworks stands when sales begin today, said Soltis. Included is the warning against igniting fireworks in windy conditions, he said.


In Stanton, which contracts with the county fire authority for fire protection, the concern is that the public will buy fireworks in one city and ignite them elsewhere, either at a county park or at weekend family reunions.

“The public doesn’t always understand that you have to stay in the city where you bought them,” said Battalion Chief Dan Runnestrand, deputy fire marshal for the fire authority.



Forest fire spares homes near Arcadia and Sierra Madre. B10