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California eyes another tough wildfire season

It's spring in Southern California. Welcome winter rains have turned canyons a verdant green — and firefighters are looking nervously to the start of the traditional fire season in June.
Image: helicopter makes a water drop
A helicopter makes a water drop at a brushfire near the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles last Thursday.Phil Mccarten / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

It's spring in California. Flowers are blooming, welcome winter rains have turned canyons a verdant green — and firefighters are looking nervously to the start of the traditional fire season in June.

October's devastating wildfires, which burned more than 500,000 acres from Malibu's ocean enclave to the Mexican border, prompted a flurry of reports and promises.

But even as extra water-dropping aircraft are purchased, building codes tightened and goat herds sent to gobble up dry brush on rugged hillsides, Californians are beginning to accept a new reality — massive wildfires are here to stay.

"Fire season is becoming a 12-month affair here," said Carroll Wills, spokesman for the California Professional Firefighters union. "The season lasts longer, the fires are more intense and the potential property loss is greater because there has been more construction in these fire-prone areas."

Some 23 wildfires across seven counties destroyed more than 3,000 homes and buildings and killed seven people in a two-week period in October 2007. Some 500,000 people were evacuated.

Prolonged drought, high temperatures, hot Santa Ana desert winds and, in two cases arson, were blamed for the string of blazes whose smoke could be clearly seen from space.

California's fire strategy has not so much changed as been reinforced since then. Despite an expected $17 billion 2008-09 state budget deficit, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has pledged to add 131 fire engines over the next five years, along with 11 24-hour-capable helicopters.

"When you have a second catastrophic wildfire in four years — the sort you might expect every 50 or 100 years — it wakes people up," said Wills, recalling blazes in October 2003 that killed 15 people in the San Diego area.

Lots of brush due to rain
Above normal rainfall has sped the growth of grass and flowers on hillsides charred by the October fires.

"That was both a blessing and a curse," said Kris Concepcion, spokesman for the Orange County Fire Authority. "Once the temperatures warm up that growth is going to turn into fire fuel and we can anticipate some flashy fast moving grass fires."

Goats are hardly the most high-tech warriors in fire prevention. But over the years they have proved effective in reducing the amount of potential fuel.

Hugh and Sarah Bunten's 55 goats are currently nibbling away on the 110-acre hillside campus surrounding the Getty Center museum in a posh part of west Los Angeles.

The Buntens are among about a dozen goat vendors for hire in Southern California. The job would otherwise fall to workers with chainsaws and trucks.

"In 1993 and 1996 when I came with the fire department to these hills, I realized they were filled with weeds. I said 'it doesn't have to be this way.' A lot of the weed that you find here is goat food," said Hugh Bunten.

'Defensible space' enforced
Fire prevention officers are cracking down on Californians in rural areas who do not abide by a law obliging them to clear brush and create at least 100 feet of "defensible space" around their homes.

Stricter building codes require new homes in fire prone areas to have roofs, vents, sidings and decking that are more resistant to burning embers that can travel for miles.

"There really has been an attempt to seriously discuss things like defensible space restrictions ... and establishing for local governments a responsibility to restrict construction in fire prone areas, or find a way to pay for the additional resources that are needed," Wills said.

Yet in San Diego County, which was the worst hit in 2007 with 1,750 homes destroyed, more than 180 permits have been issued for burned homes to be rebuilt.

Although San Diego won praise for its mass evacuations, progress has been slow in creating a unified regional fire authority. The idea has been turned down repeatedly by voters objecting to higher taxes.

Jeffrey Bowman, who resigned as San Diego fire chief in 2006 when he failed to get better funding, believes little has changed.

"The county continues to allow developers to build in areas that firefighters can't protect," Bowman said. "I don't see much in the way of education on how to prevent disasters happening either. There is some going on but it doesn't seem like it's been a high priority.

"The same scenario is going to play out again."