Hillsides dry out, fire season approaches in Orange County

California wildfires light the hillsides of the Tujunga area of Los Angeles on Monday, Aug. 31, 2009.
California wildfires light the hillsides of the Tujunga area of Los Angeles on Monday, Aug. 31, 2009.
AP Photo/John Lazar

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With the warm weather and breezy conditions the past few days, firefighters are keeping an eye on Orange County’s fire-prone hillsides. They’re asking people to start preparing for fire season now, instead of waiting until it’s too late.

"The hillsides are beginning to turn brown. The rain that we got in December and early in the year and the sporadic rains we got throughout the spring have caused the grasses and the vegetation to grow and bloom earlier this year," says George Ewan, the wildland fire defense planner for the Orange County Fire Authority. "And the grass is cured and it’s turning brown. And grass is a flashy fuel, which will carry fire very fast."

Ewan says the native shrubs are starting to dry out and go into dormancy, too.

He says you’d think all of the rain we’ve had over the past few months would help keep up the moisture levels in the vegetation.

"You would think so. But the dynamics of the soils, the conditions, the environment with the weather and everything," Ewan says. "Even to me it’s surprising about how one week they’re high. The next week, they’ve dropped off significantly."

And more rain this year meant more growth, which is more fuel for wildfires.

Fire officials are urging homeowners to prepare now.

Orange County Fire Authority Captain Greg McKeown says you can do simple things, such as clear a defensible space around your home and clean out your rain gutters.

"If you have anything around your home, like patio furniture or trash cans, anything that can catch fire and burn from an ember," McKeown says. "In the Freeway Fire, we had embers about the size of charcoal briquettes flying through the air. And should one of those embers get established or start burning in one of those combustible things like a trash can or patio furniture, then that can easily spread to the house. We want to make sure that stuff is brought away from the house, so nothing is really close, leaning up against the home."

The Freeway Complex Fire destroyed or damaged more than 300 homes in Yorba Linda and Anaheim Hills in 2008. It was the last major wildfire in Orange County. Thousands of people had to evacuate.

McKeown says it’s a good idea to keep an emergency supply kit on hand and also to make a checklist of things you’ll want to take when you evacuate.

He says it’s important to include your pets in that plan, too.