It’s so dry, even March is fire season

Times Staff Writers

As Southern California endures its driest 12 months on record, firefighters are dealing with something new: the yearlong fire season.

The region has not experienced a major rainstorm in nearly a year, with downtown Los Angeles recording just 2.42 inches of rain this season, more than nine inches below normal.

The dry conditions are taking their toll.

The Santa Ana winds that usually roar from October through December have continued with unusual frequency into March, helping fuel fires over the weekend in Orange and Riverside counties as well as smaller blazes Monday near the Griffith Observatory and in Agoura Hills.


Cities across Southern California, including Los Angeles, Westwood, Burbank, San Gabriel, Long Beach, Riverside, Oxnard and Laguna Beach, all set new temperature records Monday, ranging from the mid-80s to the mid-90s.

Local agencies have responded by beefing up fire staffing, treating late winter like the late summer and fall fire season.

“You count on winter and spring as being a respite, a time to regroup, to heal and prepare for the upcoming fire season,” said Tim Sappok, the assistant operations chief for the San Bernardino County Fire Department. “Now, normal is abnormal. We aren’t seeing the seasonal cycle. We have fuels that are ready to burn. It looks like midsummer, vegetation-wise.”

The deep freeze that hit much of the region in January is also worrying firefighters because it killed or damaged countless trees and plants, leaving them vulnerable to fire.

“I know what I see, and I see a lot of things that are not good,” said L.A. County Fire Capt. Bob Goldman, who responded to an unseasonal January brush fire in Malibu that destroyed five homes. “You see the lack of tall green grass, the lack of mustard plants growing. I am not seeing any of that. There is no water to get things going.”

The dry conditions have residents in fire-prone areas on edge, especially as they look ahead to summer and fall, when the heaviest Santa Ana winds kick in.

Jan Currey, who has lived in Malibu for 23 years, said fires in her area usually start to the east and move west, giving people time to react. But the dry conditions have made even coastal neighborhoods vulnerable, as the January fire on the beach showed. She and her neighbors are bracing themselves.

“I’ve been here long enough to see patterns,” Currey said, “and that if it’s dry and windy, it’s much worse for fires.”

But fire experts said Malibu and other coastal hillside regions up and down the Southern California coast are actually in better shape than other places because they have gotten relatively more rain.

As the hot, dry conditions extend into summer, L.A. County Fire Assistant Chief John Todd said, he is most worried about the foothills and mountains along the San Gabriel Valley, which have received less rain, leaving the grass and shrubs with a much lower moisture level.

“We have areas of L.A. County that are rapidly drying out,” Todd said. “Maybe we can get a week or two of actual winter. The thing we don’t know is what May and June are going to do. Are we going to get May gray and June gloom? It doesn’t seem possible right now.”

Officials in Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties share those concerns, noting that rainfall along inland hillsides and mountain ranges is far below normal.

Consider what Orange County fire investigators found when they examined the brush Monday around the Anaheim Hills wildfire, which burned more than 2,000 acres.

George Ewan, a fire-defense planner for the Orange County Fire Authority, said the moisture levels in vegetation revealed that most of the plants lingered on the brink of death. The vegetation tested looked as if it had been plucked at the end of a long, dry summer.

“If this is the beginning, I don’t know where we’re going to end up,” he said.

Bonnie Bartling, a weather specialist for the National Weather Service in Oxnard, said the forecast does not call for rain in the foreseeable future.

The rain season is the driest on record to date, with downtown L.A. having gotten only 20% of the normal rainfall since July 1. More than nine inches of rain would have to fall between now and June 30 just for L.A. to be at normal rain levels. But forecasters say there’s virtually no chance of that.

Instead, experts say the region could remain crispy for a considerably longer time, with some already forecasting that an emerging La Nina pattern in the Pacific will extend the drought conditions.

“The formula for a dangerous fire season includes an extended drought, low moisture levels and of course Santa Anas,” said William Patzert, a climatologist for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge. “So the only thing missing from the equation is the ignition, and so at this point what you really hope for is that the ignition doesn’t happen.”

Officials said that if the dry conditions and heavy winds continue, they would have to consider bringing in seasonal fire crews and equipment, such as tanker planes, early.

Already, the dangerous conditions led the California Department of Forestry and the Riverside County Fire Department last week to increase staffing levels to those usually seen during the peak fire season.

“There’s no doubt fire season is year-round in Southern California,” Riverside Fire Capt. Julie Hutchinson said.

But Richard Minnich, a professor of earth science at UC Riverside, said the fire risk in some lower elevation grasslands was actually diminished because although dry conditions pose a threat to such areas, it’s greatest during seasons that follow a wet year that fuels plant growth. And last year was not one of those years, he said.

But Minnich added that several swaths of the region were extremely vulnerable because the chaparral was so old -- some of it having gone nearly a century without burning.

“Old chaparral is a carpet of gasoline,” Minnich said. “Above Monrovia and Duarte and Sierra Madre, it hasn’t burned in 85 years. The chaparral in the eastern half of the San Bernardino Mountains, from Redlands east, is 60 years old. That’s a bomb ready to go off.”

Beginning today, temperatures in the region are expected to dip but remain warm. But there is still no sign of rain on the horizon.


Times staff writer Garrett Therolf contributed to this report.



Hot spots

Some of the high temperature records set Monday in Southern California:

97: Riverside

93: Downtown L.A., Burbank

92: Pasadena, Long Beach

86: Lancaster

84: Oxnard

Source: National Weather Service