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BRUSH GROWTH STOKES FEARS OF FIRESTORM.

Byline: Josh Kleinbaum Staff Writer

Fire officials fear this year's near-record rainfall will result in a brutal brush-fire season, with the lush growth covering Southern California's hillsides turning into kindling when it dries out in the summer heat.

Although the rainy season doesn't officially end until June 30, officials say high temperatures and low humidity are already sapping the moisture from the brush.

``All that grass will dry out very quickly,'' Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Mike McCormick said. ``There are no spots on the hills where there's no fuel, so we have a continuous fuel bed, which will bring the fire from one fuel of big brush to the next.''

Already this week, five brush fires erupted in communities stretching from Burbank to Rancho Palos Verdes and San Dimas. While no structures were damaged and nobody was hurt, authorities say it's an ominous start to the season.

``Typically, when we get these types of fires, it's not normally until October or November,'' county Fire Inspector John Mancha said.

Burbank Fire Marshal Dave Starr said he was surprised at how fast the flames spread in the Wednesday afternoon fire that blackened about three acres in the hills above the city. Burning branches and other debris jumped ahead of the flames, starting smaller fires in the grass, a condition firefighters call spotting.

``I said, 'Wow, it's already doing that?''' Starr said. ``It's a high-risk time this year.''

Authorities reminded homeowners to clear all brush within 200 feet of any structures, which would give firefighters enough room to fight a fire and protect the structure.

The city and county of Los Angeles began enforcing their brush-clearance regulations this month, sending warnings to residents about overgrown brush. City and county fire department inspectors have seen grass as high as 3 feet in some places.

``The problem we have (is) people will go out and clear the brush, and it may grow back,'' Los Angeles Fire Capt. John Robles said. ``In the summer season, when the humidity drops and the wind picks up, it's going to be a huge season.''

While the fresh vegetation will cause problems in the foothills, officials think it will not contribute to huge forest fires - not during the summer months, at least.

Chaparral, usually a key fuel for forest fires, is healthier and stronger than usual because of the rain, said John Todd, assistant chief of the county Fire Department's Forestry Division.

The National Interagency Fire Center, which predicts the possibility of fires throughout the country, said there could be severe fires in the areas outside of Los Angeles this summer but Los Angeles should have a normal fire season through August.

``It's our feeling here that every summer is an active fire season,'' said Ron Hamilton, a fire-weather meteorologist for the U.S. Forest Service's Predictive Services group.

``We have hot, dry winter all summer, every summer. Yes, we're going to have a lot of fires. We're going to have a lot of initial attack activity, and those fires are going to burn fast and burn hot. But with the resources that exist here, we're not going to have a lot of unusually large fires.''

Hamilton and county fire officials believe that the fire season could peak in the fall, when the Santa Ana winds sweep through the area and would help fires spread quickly.

``The hot day, when there's no air movement, that's not a hard day to control a fire,'' Todd said. ``If there's no wind, it's going to stay in one place. But by the time fall rolls around and we have the Santa Ana winds, we'll have this tremendous dead grass component, and at that time we'll have a higher fire danger.

``The fall could be interesting. The question is, are the Santa Ana winds going to blow first, or will a couple of rainstorms come first and put an end to fire season?''

Josh Kleinbaum, (818) 713-3669

josh.kleinbaum(at)dailynews.com
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 21, 2005
Words:659
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