U.S. Forest Officials Face Rash of Blazes as Fire Season Begins

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Times Staff Writer

Southern California’s fire season got off to a busy start with 15 small brush fires in the Angeles National Forest in the last few days, at least nine of which are being investigated as possible arson fires, authorities said.

Officials dealing with the rash of blazes said the 600,000-acre Angeles National Forest will have fewer firefighters this year because of higher gas prices, salaries and cost of equipment.

Engine crews will work five-day shifts instead of seven, meaning that there will be 56 fewer personnel and four hot shot crews instead of five, said Don Feser, fire chief for the Angeles National Forest. The engine crew shifts will be staggered throughout the forest so that large swaths are not left uncovered.


“We need to work within our budget,” Feser said. “We can’t deficit spend.”

Authorities on Tuesday also released their first forecast for the fire season, saying that this year’s late burst of rainstorms meant that Southern California was actually facing only an average risk of brush fires.

They said the moisture level in the brush is decreasing as the summer begins but is still at higher levels than 2003, the worst fire season in state history in which 740,000 acres burned.

“We’re going to have some fires that burn hundreds of acres and maybe some fires that burn thousands of acres, but nothing the magnitude of 2003,” said Bruce Risher, an intelligence officer at the U.S. Forest Service’s Southern California Geographic Area Coordination Center. “We’re bound to have some large fires here. Its part of the routine in California.”

Mike Huddleston, fire investigation supervisor for the San Bernardino County Fire Department, said the level of wildfire activity in his fire-prone area has been normal so far this year.

“We don’t anticipate anything out of the ordinary,” Huddleston said.

“We’re not beefing up any more than in past.... We know by past experience that we just really can’t plot it out,” Huddleston said.

Still, the possible arson fires concerned some officials, who noted that several of Southern California’s biggest blazes -- including the 2003 Old Fire in San Bernardino and the 1993 Laguna fire -- were set.


The suspicious blazes occurred mostly in the western Angeles National Forest, each charring no more than 25 acres.

Last Thursday, three fires started within three to five miles of one another off the Golden State Freeway in the Gorman area, said Det. Richard Edwards of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Arson/Explosive Detail.

Edwards said the three fires -- the largest of which was two to three acres -- were quickly extinguished, but were suspicious because they were next to the freeway and because they occurred within an hour, starting at 4 p.m.

Investigators are also looking at a June 10 blaze on a pine tree plantation that burned two acres in Big Tujunga Canyon, but was contained in four to five hours, Feser said.

“There was no evidence of a campfire, so we thought there was something odd there,” he said.

He declined to say if investigators were looking for a serial arsonist, saying that some blazes could have been caused by errant cigarettes


“These fires aren’t out of the range of viability right now,” the chief said.

Firefighters had a non-arson blaze to attend to early Saturday when a car veered off Angeles Crest Highway in the Dark Canyon area, igniting a fire that burned 25 acres of brush. The two passengers were not hurt, said Stanton Florea, a spokesman for the Forest Service.

Although some fire officials expect an average fire season, others remain concerned about the possibility of major blazes this summer and fall.

“Given the fire danger in California, even average would be horrible anywhere else,” said Matt Mathes, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service’s California headquarters.

Feser also warned that early readings predicting an average fire season could be premature. “We don’t know what the climate will be the next four, five, six months,” he said.

In Riverside County, Patrick Chandler, a public information officer with the Fire Department, said officials are concerned that the amount of rain this past winter may create new risks because there is more vegetation that is dead or drying out as temperatures rise.

“The risk for Southern California is going to be high every year,” Chandler said. “The weather is getting hotter, things are getting drier. So people just need to be vigilant.”



Times staff writer Maeve Reston contributed to this report.