Southern California’s fire season—fueled by recent hot weather and high winds—has public safety officials worried.
Steve Swindle, an engineer with the Ventura County Fire Department, said his agency is was put on high alert with the arrival of conditions ideally suited for brush fires.
“It’s hot, the humidities are (low), we’ve had east winds blowing,” Swindle told The Acorn during the recent heat wave. “Those three things together create quite a bit of danger, but there’s a fourth factor that’s been added in. The critical fuel moistures, that’s the amount of moisture in the chaparral, is beyond critical, anywhere from 80 to 100 percent probability of ignition.
“If there’s an ignition source, it’s going to explode right now and take off,” Swindle said. “It’s a dangerous mix of everything that creates conditions that make us hyperalert,” said Swindle, a 30-year firefighting veteran.
Swindle said his department is positioning firefighting equipment around the county for faster deployment. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has also assigned fire engines and crews to the area as a pre-emptive measure.
Wind and sparks
The Santa Ana winds sweep across California’s inland deserts, carrying hot, dry winds to the coastal regions. They typically start in September and last through early spring, and their arrival marks the start of California’s fire season.
After the heat of the summer pulls moisture out of plant life, the Santa Ana winds further the fire-friendly conditions and keep the Ventura region dry. Swindle said he’s spent several Thanksgivings battling raging fires.
In addition to creating hazardous conditions, the winds can also make it harder to fight existing fires.
“All you have to do is look to the north and see what happened with the winds up there—firebrands and embers and stuff are blown miles ahead of the fire, creating new fires,” Swindle said. “It wasn’t necessarily direct flame impingement that burned those houses down, it was the showers of embers being blown well ahead of the fire that were finding nooks and crannies, getting into houses and then burning. The fire would burn up to them while they’re already burning, and then it would start all over again. It’s a cycle.”
In certain conditions, wildfires can have a number of causes, from flicking a cigarette out of a car window to something less obvious.
Monte Nido resident Sheila Rosenthal said that earlier this month a friend of hers averted disaster by putting out a possible fire in a pile of chemical-soaked rags that had been left in direct sunlight at her home in Topanga Canyon. The sun heated the chemicals to the point where the rags started smoldering, Rosenthal said.
Swindle said improperly handled household chemicals can catch fire and destroy homes.
Inattentive drivers can also start fires.
“If you have a travel or utility trailer and your safety chains aren’t secured properly, they can contact the ground and create sparks that start a fire. One of the other things to be aware of is your catalytic converter in the exhaust system in your car,” he said. “It’s extremely hot, and if you’re out in an area of brush, as silly as it sounds, don’t go parking your car in the field. That heat will actually torch the grasses. We’ve seen that happen before.”
Part of the county fire department’s plan to prepare for wildfires is giving the public guidelines to keep their homes fire-safe and telling residents how they can prepare for a wildfire.
Heather Sumagaysay, spokesperson for VCFD, said families should make plans on what to do if a fire begins. The department’s website offers a free fire-readiness guide called “Ready, Set, Go!”
The guide lists steps homeowners can take to prepare their property for a brush fire, such as trimming foliage close to the house and keeping rain gutters clear of combustible debris.
“The last two pages (of the booklet) have how to create your own wildfire action plan. That’s everything from getting ready by preparing your family, getting set as the fire approaches, and then also being ready to go if you are evacuated, either by voluntary or mandatory evacuation,” Sumagaysay said. “The guide also goes over that checklist of things to do at different stages.”
She said residents can also sign up for VC Alert, a notification system that gives subscribers information about area emergencies— fires, natural disasters and road closures. Los Angeles has a similar program, Alert LA County.
“Ready, Set, Go!” is a national program that is available on the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s website.