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Fire Safety Means Planning

An aggressive brush-clearing campaign prevented last week’s North Ranch fire in Westlake Village from becoming much worse.

Even so, the blaze was a timely reminder to use extra caution in these dry, windy days--and to eliminate fireworks and firearms from tonight’s New Year’s celebration plans.

Amid high winds, low humidity, dry brush and no significant rain in months, it takes precious little to start a fire that can quickly turn disastrous.

Investigators believe the 600-acre blaze that swept close to million-dollar homes in Thousand Oaks’ highest-priced housing development was sparked by heat from a vehicle driving through thick, dry grass. Four area teenagers were arrested and cited on suspicion of carelessly causing a fire, a misdemeanor. Police said the youths drove a minivan into the heavy brush above the gated North Ranch Country Club Estates. The blaze gutted the van and spread, coming within 100 feet of homes.

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At least 600 firefighters from Ventura and Los Angeles counties and several city departments battled the fire, supported by 40 fire engines, two water-dropping helicopters and two air tankers filled with a chemical agent used to contain wildfires.

The fire was one of several that blackened hills and fields across Ventura County in the past week as Santa Ana winds swept through the area. Fires near Ventura, in Fillmore and around Somis and Santa Paula, burned roughly 1,000 acres and cost more than $1 million in firefighting overtime and equipment. With no rain expected soon, area fire teams have increased patrols of high-hazard areas and placed reinforcements on standby.

No matter how elaborately firefighters might prepare, the most important defense against this sort of hazard is common sense. Most area blazes are caused by human carelessness: In 1999, 271 of the 311 fires in Angeles National Forest were caused by people, mostly by accident. Anyone who lives in or ventures into the wild when hillsides and canyons are parched and the Santa Anas howl must use extreme caution.

In this case, firefighters were able to contain the blaze relatively quickly because brush around the homes had been removed. Property owners in high-risk fire areas are required to clear grass and brush within 100 feet of structures. Last spring, the Ventura County Fire Department sent out nearly 20,000 notices, and 99% of residents complied with the fire hazard reduction program. Although homeowners sometimes balk at the cost or aesthetic sacrifice of keeping plants away from their residences, fire officials credit that effort with creating a safe zone.

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“Without that, and very aggressive firefighting, we definitely would have had homes that were lost,” Fire Department spokeswoman Sandi Wells told The Times.


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