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Fires

SoCal May See 'Worst Fire Season Ever' in 2011

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Mon, Jun 6, 2011 at 3:45 PM

click to enlarge Outlook not good for Topanga Canyon - TASC
  • TASC
  • Outlook not good for Topanga Canyon
We hate to feed off Hollywood's apocalypse obsession and growing natural-disaster paranoia (re: deadly tornadoes in the Midwest), but there seems to be some freaky truth to this one.

Ventura Fire Captain Ron Oatman tells KNX news radio that summer 2011 could very well set a hot new record in the Southland.

"Every year we say 'This could be the worst fire season ever,' but it really is true this year," he says.

Julie Hutchinson, a spokeswoman for Cal Fire, is a bit less bold, telling the Weekly that "we never say [worst ever]..."

... but that, if SoCal's unpredictable mediterranean climate decides to wax especially hot/dry anytime soon, lush undergrowth ironically cultivated by record rains and cool summers the last couple years have set us up for the worst kind of fire season.

Hutchinson says the area's most flame-ravaged summers in recent memory -- 2003 and 2007 -- were bad for a different reason. Those fires, harshest in San Diego, "came on the heels of quite a few years of draught."

This time, unusually cold weather throughout the Southland has allowed "a lot more vegetation" to build up without being wiped out by fires. "Once that dries out," though -- and such could happen within a single day -- Hutchinson warns that a 2011 fire would burn on twice the fuel we're used to.

"In SoCal, you can have rain today, and by tomorrow, you could have an 80-degree day," she says. "With wind blowing on it, that grass is back dried out within an hour."

It's hard to know which warnings to take seriously these days, what with all the Big Ones and tsunami/radiation alarms terrorizing the public consciousness. And since nobody can soundly predict what West Coast weather will do this year, it's too early to call 2011 the worst ever for fires.

But combine a sudden heat wave with the rare double-growth situation we're seeing this fire season, and a few discarded cigarettes could easily set a new record.

"We had a lot of potential last year, too," Hutchinson says. "However, the weather never really heated up. It didn't dry out the fuels."

Oatman warns KNX that 2011 could be different: "This year, we had a lot of rain, and that definitely helped us quite a bit. But you've seen all the green grass that's grown, and that green grass is already turning brown."

In response, fire departments throughout SoCal will be at peak staffing by the middle of July, Hutchinson predicts. (Conveniently aligned with Carmageddon. Great.)

Already, we're starting to see the Arson Watch trucks out in full force, nervously waiting for canyon hikers to misplace a camping match or a pack of stoned youth to drop the pipe. Because if the fires do hit hard in 2011, they'll hit the thick, green-and-gold canyon grasses hardest -- as the longtime Malibu alumni of Decker Canyon know all too well.

"Just don't let your guard down," Hutchinson warns. Yeah -- what she said.

[@simone_electra/swilson@laweekly.com]

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