Fire Officials on Edge as California Fire Season Kicks Off

July 10, 2006

With a spate of wildfires last week in Southern California and an explosion of lightning-ignited blazes in the northeastern part of the state, the start of this year’s fire season has many officials on edge.

As of last Thursday, California had 3,295 fires that burned 62,572 acres, representing a drop from last year’s 2,039 fires that consumed 94,521 acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

But an abundance of dry brush, searing heat and bark beetle infestations mean that could change at any moment.

“We’re going to be busy as firefighters this season,” said Los Angeles County fire spokesman Ron Harelson.

While the state’s overall rainfall has not been especially low this year, the rain has created its own problems and drought conditions over the past several years have left some areas vulnerable.

Rain and snow are healthy for trees in the high mountains, but rainfall in the lower elevations grows more grass that eventually dries out and creates more fuel for wildfire, said Rick Ochoa, an NIFC fire weather program manager.

In the mountains reaching from San Bernardino southward to the Mexico border, dry conditions have heightened the fire risk. Additionally, there are thousands of acres of trees killed by drought-induced bark beetle infestations.

“Obviously, they are going to burn really fast,” Ochoa said.

In northeastern California, where lightning set about 300 fires last week, Ochoa said they expect more such blazes soon and were already moving a heavy air tanker to the area.

And in the coastal mountain ranges north of Los Angeles to Salinas, Ochoa said dry grasses could ignite at any time.

“The longer the summer wears on, the worse it gets,” Ochoa said. “And then the Santa Ana winds generally start in the fall, which just creates more problems.”

A heat spell, meanwhile, has gripped Los Angeles County, forcing fire officials to substantially increase staffing, Harelson said.

It’s too early to tell whether this fire season will come close to 2003, when 4,332 fires consumed 657,828 acres in Southern California, according to NIFC figures.

But “one fire could change everything,” said state Department of Forestry spokesman Michael Jarvis.

In California, the U.S. Forest Service stops 98 percent of fires 300 acres or less, said agency spokesman Matt Mathes. However, 2 percent can explode across tens of thousands of acres.

Officials say that even fire prevention itself sometimes increases fire risk. Firefighters have suppressed so many blazes over the years that California has seen an unnatural build up of fuels, mostly brush and small trees, that would have otherwise burned, Mathes said.

Mathes said the Forest Service is monitoring two lightning fires in unpopulated areas of Mendocino County that are helping restore that natural ecological balance to the wilderness.

The Forest Service also started its own brush-clearing fire in June in the Marble Mountain wilderness, which was still burning.

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