Dry winter has firefighters preparing for blazes

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first_imgSANTA CLARITA – The scene looks as beautiful and stirring as a landscape painting, with a majestic tree standing alone in a clearing and oak-covered hills veiled by hazy light. But because of dry conditions, this idyllic land between a Santa Clarita Valley church and the wildland border is more than just pretty. It’s also about ready to burn. The Santa Clarita Valley has seen just 4.34inches of rain since the rain season began Oct.1. The area’s annual average is 18inches. The result is high fire danger. The brittle sagebrush along the edge of a clearing around the church property has died, making it potential tinder for a wildfire. There’s much more of the dead brush than there is live, green growth, and little moisture to slow down a fire. “This is stuff that obviously hasn’t had a chance to grow back,” fire inspector Jason Hurd said as he held brittle branches. “The big thing is, if you just grab it, it breaks off in your hand.” As the oak trees just past the dead sagebrush begin to dry out later in the year, they will also become potential wildfire fuel, said Hurd, who covers the Santa Clarita Valley for the county Fire Department. Wildland drying out is part of an annual cycle in Southern California. But it’s all happening so much earlier this year because of a lack of rain. Last year’s rainfall also was below average. “Normally, this time of year we see the hills turning green, and we’re usually giving out sandbags and preparing for rain,” Hurd said. But instead of mobilizing for potential floods and swift-water rescues, firefighters are racking up overtime to staff wildfire “strike teams,” with every red-flag warning that goes out. A strike team is made up of five engine companies and a battalion chief. “We want to make sure we’re not behind the eight ball; we want to have the extra resources there,” said Inspector Ron Haralson of the county Fire Department. Since Dec. 1, the National Weather Service has already issued seven red-flag warnings for the county. Rainfall has been a fraction of its normal levels throughout the county. Downtown Los Angeles would normally have 12.6inches of rain from July1 until now, according to the National Weather Service. But in the past year, the area has had only 2.4inches of rain in that time period. Palmdale is just as dry, with 0.65inches of rain falling since July1, while the normal rainfall amount would be 6.2inches, according to the National Weather Service. “We were much closer to normal (rainfall) last year,” said Bonnie Bartling, weather specialist with the National Weather Service. “This year, we’re much further away.” A wildfire that started March11 in Anaheim Hills burned more than 2,000 acres, while on Monday another fire in Griffith Park burned 8.7acres. The Santa Clarita Valley could soon see similar flare-ups. “Basically, anywhere in the Santa Clarita Valley (has) potential for significant fire hazard,” Hurd said. The Santa Clarita Valley normally has 54 firefighters, but now it has 23 additional firefighters to address the wildfire threat, he said. Along with Malibu and Agoura Hills, the Santa Clarita Valley is normally one of the areas the Fire Department sends strike teams to during red-flag warnings. A strike team could be housed at a fire station, or in areas near potential flashpoints. In the Angeles National Forest, the chamise brush that is monitored is dryer than normal, National Forest Service spokesman Stanton Florea said. While last year about 85percent of the plant weight consisted of water, that has decreased to about 70percent this year, he said. Fire officials urged property owners to clear brush around structures, and prune trees so a fire cannot easily jump from the ground to branches. “We’re going to have fires right now that are going to move in the grasses that have died, the light, flashy fuels,” Hurd said. [email protected] (661) 257-5253160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img

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