As experts predict a bad fire season, Orange County Fire Watch is ready to help prevent wildfires

Firefighting hand crew fight the Blue Ridge fire in 2020.
Firefighting hand crew fight the Blue Ridge fire in 2020.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

As experts predict another historically bad fire season in California, Orange County Fire Watch is preparing to prevent fires before they grow into massive blazes that can threaten homes and wildlife.

The countywide program will use a hybrid system with in-person and virtual monitoring, which O.C. Fire Watch adopted last year to keep volunteers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 300 volunteers will look for signs of fires, largely on Red Flag warning days when strong winds, low humidity levels and high temperatures increase the risk of fire.

O.C. Fire Watch volunteers are particularly important during the Santa Ana winds season, which starts around August. Red Flag warnings can last into March.

“Even if it was going to be another worst fire season ever, as some chiefs typically try to communicate, we staff to the maximum ability,” said Tony Pointer, the conservancy’s fire watch manager. “Whether it’s going to be a light fire season or heavy fire season, we staff as much as we can. We just focus on trying to reduce the number of ignitions so they don’t even get to the possibility of being a catastrophic fire.”

A firefighter sprays water at the Blue Ridge fire along San Antonio Road in Yorba Linda.
The Blue Ridge fire is tackled along the 3700 block of San Antonio Road in October 2020 in Yorba Linda.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

O.C. Fire Watch is managed by Irvine Ranch Conservancy for O.C. Parks and the cities of Irvine and Newport Beach.

There are currently fewer volunteers than last year, when there were 350. The program was unable to hold orientations for newcomers due to the pandemic. Pointer said the less manpower doesn’t inhibit the fire watches’ monitoring abilities.

“Of course, it stretches us a little thin,” Pointer said. “What it probably does is where typically we try to have two volunteers at a fire watch location, it does sort of get us down to one volunteer at a location instead of the two sets of eyes when we’re deploying.”

O.C. Fire Watch volunteers monitor 36 different locations throughout the county. In-person watchers take two-hour shifts and virtual watchers take four-hour shifts.

Firefighters use a stretch of runway at the former Marine station as an emergency aviation base to refill helicopters with fuel and water.

Virtual watchers can use computers or tablets to monitor the camera feeds. Pointer said the method for monitoring is much different when done virtually. Only some of the cameras rotate. They also are not zoomed in and take a more broad view of the area.

Virtual fire watchers will monitor up to four camera feeds, normally from different areas.

Pointer said the Santiago Canyon area is one of the most historically hazardous spots that they oversee. The O.C. Fire Watch heavily staffs that area, he said.

Pointer also said that roadsides are an important area to monitor. Many roadside fires can be caused by malfunctioning cars. He said that they heavily monitor the 241 Toll Road, which is bordered by vegetation and runs through Rancho Santa Margarita, Lake Forest and Irvine.

Last year’s fire season was the worst in California history, with six of the state’s largest fires ever recorded. Orange County had its own share of fires — the Blue Ridge and Silverado fires and the Bond fire. Last month, there were several brush fires near Newport Coast that had to be extinguished by more than 100 firefighters.

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