More fuel raises fire alert

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Recent rains have caused more grass and plant growth, adding to a higher fire risk.

By Hans Laetz/ Special to The Malibu Times

Residents of the Joshua tree-studded deserts 150 miles east of the ocean are feeling what Malibu residents may feel this winter: the heat of blazing grass and weeds spawned by last year’s record-breaking winter rains. Fire weather has already started in the inland regions, and will sweep to the coast before summer’s end, experts say.

Wind-driven brush fires destroyed six houses and scorched more than 3,000 acres recently in Morongo Valley, 20 miles northeast of Palm Springs, an area where an unusual crop of dry grasses had carpeted what is normally bare desert. In Riverside, 2,080 acres were burned in Soboba. More than 68,000 acres burned in the Mojave Desert, destroying five homes and six trailers. And closer to home in Malibu, a fire in Santa Clarita burned approximately 125 acres.

Fire officials say the 40-inch rainfall at some coastal weather gauges caused a massive spurt of grassy plant growth that is now withering in the summer heat, creating a fuse to ignite accumulated woody plants that dried up and died over several years of drought.

“All that rain just created more fuel to burn,” said longtime fire watcher Alan Emerson. “We’ve got all this dead brush from the drought and now we’ve got the fuse.”

That combination has members of Arson Watch, a volunteer patrol and deterrence group, on edge.

“We’re very much aware of the danger this year because of the extended amount of rains,” said Emerson, an Arson Watch team leader. “Right now we have people out with their signs on their cars, keeping a high profile.

“We think moving cars out with their signs on makes people think two or three times before they do something,” Emerson said.

Local fire officials agree that higher grass growth adds to a higher fire alert.

“Oh yes, because of the [dry] grass,” said Fire Captain Scott Graham of Station 72. “[It’s] flashier fuel and takes less to ignite, [and] by lighting it, it heats up bigger brush. It’s like a ladder fuel.”

Although, Graham added, the fuel moisture in bigger plants is still high, so if the grasses did ignite, the larger plants would not burn as easily, and if there’s no wind, fires would be easier to control.

Complicating the heavy fuel load and dry conditions are the normal cycle of major, 4,000-plus-acre fires coming every year after more than 20 inches of rain fall in the Santa Monica Mountains. More than 50 inches of rain was measured at some mountaintop locations last winter.

Emerson has lived along Topanga Canyon Boulevard for decades and helped form Arson Watch to deter arsonists and detect suspicious activity early during “red flag” conditions, when desert winds sweep to the sea.

Arson Watch has five teams of volunteer spotters scattered across the mountain range that sits north of Malibu. During red flags, they drive about and use two-way radios to report suspicious activity in areas where cell phones are spotty.

And this year has Emerson plenty worried. “This year is going through the normal pattern, but we have this 3-foot or 4-foot high grass everywhere,” he said. “There is no ‘fire season’ as far as I am concerned, but this year looks unusual.”

Emerson said the group can always use additional volunteers, and is in particular looking for help from people who live at high ridge tops and who can man radio relay stations during red flag warnings. Interested persons can call Arson Watch’s toll-free line: 877.404.3200, extension 3223.

Fire Captain Graham said local residents have been very good about clearing brush around their property to decrease the fire danger, but they have been experiencing “grow-backs” and some people have had to clear their land at least three or four times this year so far.