News Column

Brutal Fire Season Ahead for California

May 3, 2013

Susan Abram

The fast moving blazes that erupted in Riverside and Ventura counties this week were part of an increase of wildfires seen earlier than usual statewide, and means that Southern California can expect a nastier fire season this summer, officials said.

Since the beginning of the year, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has responded to more than 850 wildfires, or 60 percent more than the average for this time of year.

"It's all due to the fact that conditions are extremely dry out there, and this week's fires were compounded by the winds," said CalFire spokesman Daniel Berlant.

Berlant said firefighters are seeing weather conditions typical of late summer.

"This amount of fires burning with this much intensity this early in the year is abnormal," Berlant said. "The two Southern California fires have caused the most concern because of the number of homes in danger."

The fires in Banning and Camarillo both started within a day of the National Weather Service issuing a Red Flag Warning, the highest alert possible that signals fire is likely to erupt within 24 hours. Both wildfires were fueled by high temperatures, gusty northeast winds, crisp, dry brush as a result of little rain, and low relative humidity.

"I can't remember seeing this magnitude of Santa Ana winds this late in the year," said AccuWeather western forecasting expert Ken Clark.

Conditions in Ventura County were ripe for fire, with temperatures reaching 98, a record for May 2 in Camarillo, in addition to 2 percent relative humidity, winds of up to 59 mph on the hillsides, and brush moisture at 77 percent when it should be at least 115 percent for this time of year, said Stuart Seto, weather specialist for the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

"We're definitely in a dry spell," said Seto, who added he could see smoke from the nearby fire from his offices.

Average rainfall, which is measured between July and June 30, has dropped all over Southern California, Seto said, especially away from coastal areas. Downtown Los Angeles, for example, has seen only 35 percent of its average rainfall of 14.93 inches. The coast has seen 50 percent of its average, but most inland areas have experienced 25 percent of their total rainfall so far this year.

Adding to the dry season, there's a 40 percent chance that summer temperatures in Southern California will be higher than normal.

"We need some rain," Seto said. "We need an El Nino. If it's a strong one, we'll get some strong rains. But now we're sitting in a neutral position for 2013."

Inland Southern California's combination of dense shrub land and hot, fast winds make these sorts of fires a regular occurrence, said Max Moritz, a research scientist at University of California Berkeley's Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management.

"One of the things we've learned through lots and lots of different fires in different years is when we have a real dry spring and we have fire weather conditions, like Santa Ana (winds), which are some of the worst fire conditions in the world, if you have an ignition in those conditions, the tendency is going to have a very large, fast-moving fire."

Similar fires have been seen in other countries that combine dry weather and

fast-moving winds.

"Australia had terrible fires just a few years ago, and Greece and Spain (as well). A lot of these just boil down to bad fire weather."

Banning's terrain is covered in dense shrubs that Moritz says are a breeding ground for wildfires.

"These are shrubs that are naturally fire-adapted. When they burn, they put off a lot of heat and they move quickly, if the winds are blowing," he said. "Most of Southern California is impenetrable shrub lands. They're naturally adapted to relatively infrequent, high-intensity fires."

Moritz believes more research can help minimize the loss of property and human life in future fires.

It's the kind of research that has been done for other natural disasters.

"We tend to have OK maps of flood plains or earthquake faults, but we don't tend to have good wildfire maps," Moritz said. "There's all these kinds of fire winds, fire weather that we know about, but we don't have very good maps of when and where. It's one of the parts of the equation that we don't really have as good information on as we'd like."

The Red Flag Warning will likely be lifted today, when winds were expected to decrease. But temperatures will rise across Southern California into the 90s and humidity is expected to be low.

"We'll see a big change Saturday when the high temperatures will move off," Seto said. "By Sunday, a low-pressure area will be approaching us bringing a 20 percent chance of precipitation."

Meanwhile, fire officials continue to ask residents to use prevention methods to protect their homes: They recommend the following:

--Remove all dead plants, grass, and weeds from within 30 feet of your home.

--Trim trees 6 feet from the ground

--Remove all leaves, pine needles and debris from roofs

--Create an evacuation plan in case of a wildfire.

Staff writer Beau Yarbrough contributed to this report.

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(c)2013 the Daily News (Los Angeles)

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Distributed by MCT Information Services





Source: (c)2013 the Daily News (Los Angeles)


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