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GROWING DANGER GRASS SPROUTED BY RAINS A FIRE THREAT.

Byline: Jason Kandel Staff Writer

All that record-breaking rainfall this winter has a downside that could be worse than a mudslide: The pounding storms quenched parched hillsides and fed the rapid growth of grass and vegetation that can cause a severe wildfire season.

``Even with all the rain and all the mud, in a few months you'll have a potential for catastrophic grass fires,'' said Los Angeles Fire Department Inspector Michael Henley. ``To see an increased fuel load always makes firefighters nervous.''

The threat has prompted inspectors to get a jump-start on surveying the hillsides to determine just how much growth has sprouted up. A 40-person task force is being assembled for inspections this spring of more than 130,000 properties in the city and 37,000 in the county for signs of brush hazards.

Fire officials also are preparing fliers, which will be sent out to thousands of homeowners urging them to cut weeds, brush and grass, and to remove low-hanging branches around their homes.

``As soon as it quits raining and dries out, we're going to really get started because we're going to have a lot of work this year,'' said Assistant Chief John Todd, who heads the Los Angeles County Fire Department's Forestry Division. ``There's going to be so much grass and brush everywhere. Everything's growing like crazy.''

Henley went out last week to hillsides in Sherman Oaks, where grasses - known as flash fuels in firefighter parlance - are shooting up.

``It's dense and it's growing high real fast,'' he said. ``The brush is going to be much heavier than it was last year simply because of the amount of rain. This is a lot heavier than it normally is.''

In 2002, the fire season started early and hot, with brush dried out from a lack of rain, but fire officials fear that the currently green grasses will quickly turn yellow and brown in the summer heat.

Los Angeles already has weathered its third-wettest rain season on record, getting more than twice the normal rainfall. The National Weather Service has recorded 33.87 inches of rain in downtown Los Angeles so far this rain year, which runs from July 1 to June 30. The wettest year ever recorded was in 1883-84, when the region was drenched with 38.18 inches.

Firefighters say local brush has already sprouted up to 2 feet high in some places, and could jump to more than 5 feet by the spring.

``We'll have a lot of grass fires, for sure,'' said Jim Wright, chief of fire protection with the California Department of Forestry. ``Grass dries out quickly. Grasses are easy to ignite.''

California was hit hard by brush fires in October and November 2003, when 15,000 firefighters struggled to douse 10 major wildfires that raged over 10 days in five counties across the state. Twenty-two people were killed and nearly 750,000 acres of brush and timber, 3,626 homes and 1,184 outbuildings burned.

The fires were fueled by an average rainfall season that year. But now, with the green grasses sprouting quicker, officials fear late-season tinderbox conditions, exacerbated by warm Santa Ana winds.

Paul Edelman, the deputy director of natural resources and planning for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, said the rain is a blessing and a curse. The rain creates more plant mass, but also eliminates decaying plant mass - the stuff that really burns.

``There's a lot of complexities,'' he said. ``It's not just, OK, more grass is going to burn more.''

He said fuel-moisture levels are extremely high, meaning it will take longer for the brush to dry out, which could actually help push back the fire season to the end of the year.

But there are too many variables, and city and county firefighters are taking no chances. Firefighters are hoping that being vigilant about cutting brush from around homes - a year-round effort - will help stave off a nasty conflagration by fall.

Firefighters say keeping brush away from homes and other buildings gives them a better chance of saving a home from an approaching fire while giving them enough ``defensible space'' to fight the fire.

Officials have been targeting their attention in the hillside communities of Chatsworth, Woodland Hills, Lancaster, Palmdale, Santa Clarita, Malibu and La Caada Flintridge, which are the most at risk for major fires.

Homeowners are required to cut a 200-foot swath between their homes and the brush by mid-May. Most comply. But for those who don't, fire officials send out a contractor to do it for them, and then bill the homeowner for the service that can run as as high as $320.

Rhoda Bodzin, an actress who lives on Cody Road, a windy hillside street in Sherman Oaks, admits to having heart palpitations every year when she receives the LAFD's flier about clearing brush around her home.

But she's glad they are vigilant.

``It's not pleasant to get those notices,'' said Bodzin, an East Coast native who's lived here for two years. ``But it's good that they're really on the case. They don't want L.A. to go up in flames.''

Jason Kandel, (818) 713-3664

jason.kandel(at)dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

2 photos, chart

Photo:

(1 -- color) Los Angeles Fire Department Inspector Michael Henley points out lush new hillside growth that could become fuel for wildfires.

(2 -- color) A family hikes in Newbury Park amid long grass, which could become tinder-dry when the weather warms up.

Tina Burch/Staff Photographer

Chart:

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA: RIPE FOR THE BURNING

SOURCE: Daily News research

Jon Gerung/Daily News
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Mar 1, 2005
Words:924
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