Is Southern California prepared for a major fire?

City of Los Angeles Fire Chief Brian Cummings at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
City of Los Angeles Fire Chief Brian Cummings at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Brian Watt/KPCC

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California Fire officials say the state’s been pretty lucky so far this year on the wildfire front — but as they watch the fires burn in Colorado, they know that luck could run out any day. Warm, dry conditions and the Fourth of July holiday have firefighters on alert and bracing for a long and tough fire season.

To be clear, fire season is basically year-round in Southern California. But there are stretches when wildfires are more likely to ignite. We’re in one now, so Independence Day is the opposite of a holiday for a guy like City of Los Angeles Fire Chief Brian Cummings.

"We are augmenting our staffing," Cummings said. "We’re putting more fire engines out. We’re staffing up our brush patrols. We’re activating our community fire patrols ... as well as our community response teams. So we’ll have a very robust presence across the city on the Fourth."

Cummings spoke at a news conference this week to address the main worry on the Fourth: fireworks. They are illegal in the city of Los Angeles, but allowed in some area cities and the unincorporated areas of L.A. County.

But even without the fireworks, Cummings said conditions are ripe for a fire.

“What’s different this year is we had some exceptional rain totals about a year and a half ago," Cummings said. "We had a lot of growth. And now this year with less than normal rainfall and then a warmer than normal earlier season, we see that the problem is gonna be a little bit worse. So we’re preparing for that.”

On a normal day, Cummings said, his department has 950 firefighters in the field, but he can easily add another 200 if necessary.

If a fire starts, "We’re gonna dispatch as many folks as we can on that initial assignment so we can overwhelm the fire," Cummings said. "We’re gonna use our air assets, our helicopters, three brand new twin-engine helicopters and we’re going to aggressively hit that fire to keep it small."

If that’s not enough, there’s backup. The L.A. County Fire Department has even more resources, including nine helicopters. Then there’s the U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire, the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Dale Hutchinson, who heads Cal Fire's Southern Region, says the state’s mutual aid system can move firefighting resources into place from all over — quickly.

"One thing about California, we’ve had our own ‘trial by fire’ if you would," Hutchinson said. "We‘ve had our own disasters that we’ve had to deal with. We’ve tested the system numerous times and it has worked."

But even if all goes according to plan, containing a wildfire is tough and time-consuming.

"When I watch the devastation in the Rockies and Southwest, I look at the California situation with concern," Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson says the drying out of vegetation at all elevations in California is two months ahead of schedule, and the state has already recorded more than 2,500 fires this year. That’s nearly twice as many as by this time last year.

"We’ve been very fortunate with the strong initial attack capability with all of the assets," Hutchinson said. "Even though we’ve had twice as many fires, we’ve had few fires that have gone to extended attack or become major fires."

Hutchinson wants to make sure that as the hot, dry summer continues, more fires don’t stretch that initial attack capability too thin.

Fire officials say they count on people who live in wildfire-prone areas to clear their brush and create a defensible space around their homes. They should also have an evacuation plan and leave when the order comes.