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FIREFIGHTERS WARM UP FOR SUMMER CONTROLLED BURN PROVIDES PRACTICE.

Byline: Holly Edwards Staff Writer

CASTAIC - Firefighter Alex Calvo walked along a brush-filled field Tuesday at the Peter Pitchess Detention Center, spilling drops of gasoline on the parched vegetation and igniting it with a blow torch.

Within seconds, orange flames and thick clouds of brown and gray smoke began to rise and some 150 firefighters and 50 inmates - standing at the ready with shovels and rakes in hand - swung into action.

A three-day-long controlled burn of 92 acres surrounding the Castaic jail complex was under way. As the flames spread quickly, firefighters threw dirt on the fire at a frenzied pace.

``Look at how fast that fire's moving, and it's not even that windy,'' said Los Angeles County Fire Sgt. Brian Jordan. ``You can imagine how fast a brush fire spreads when the Santa Ana winds kick up.''

With fire season officially beginning Thursday, and the Los Alamos, N.M., disaster fresh on everyone's mind, fire officials didn't take any chances on losing control of the blaze. A water-filled helicopter, a bulldozer and a battalion of six fire engines stood ready to intervene at the first sign that the firefighters were losing control of the fire.

Intended primarily as a training exercise for firefighters and the inmates who serve as their support team, the controlled burn was also designed to protect nearby homes by eliminating dead vegetation.

About 1,300 brush fires were reported in the county last year, and fire officials expect this season to be even busier. The lush vegetation produced by El Nino rains two years ago is now drying up and could provide an abundance of fuel for brush fires, Jordan said. This summer is also expected to be drier and windier than usual.

Firefighters participating in this week's training exercises say they are ready.

``Sometimes we're up for 24 hours straight battling a brush fire, so we have to spend a lot of time training and preparing for that,'' said Eric Nelson, a county firefighter. ``We do a lot of runs, a lot of hikes, weight training, we watch our diets and we do a lot of cardio for endurance.''

Sally Medel, one of three women participating in the training exercise, called the job ``exhilarating and exhausting.''

``As long as I do my job, the guys treat me like just another crew member,'' Medel said.

The 50 inmates participating in the drill serve as a backup team for area firefighters and also must undergo rigorous training, Jordan said.

Fire officials say the most common causes of brush fires are careless smokers, bottles that ignite dry grass by magnifying sunlight, and, oddly enough, gardeners using Weed Whackers.

``The Weed Whackers can shoot rocks at another rock and create a spark,'' Jordan explained.

To protect themselves and their property, Jordan suggested residents clear brush to ground level within 30 feet of their homes and cut vegetation down to 18 inches in the area 70 to 200 feet from their homes. He also suggested residents remove dead tree branches and keep pieces of wood on hand to cover windows in case of a brush fire.

CAPTION(S):

3 photos

Photo: (1 -- color) A helicopter makes a water drop Tuesday near the Pitchess Detention Center as firefighters and inmates, with the recent disaster in New Mexico fresh in their minds, make sure a controlled fire stays under control.

(2 -- 3 -- color) Above, firefighters keep a close eye on the fast-moving flames after sparking a controlled burn along a ridge. At right, members of the firefighting team climb a ridge to make sure they stay ahead of the flames.

Shaun Dyer/Special to the Daily News
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 24, 2000
Words:606
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