The continuing drought and lack of significant rain from the winter El Nino has made the region ripe for what could be one of the worst wildfire seasons on record, Southland and state fire officials warned Monday.
Riverside fire Chief Michael Moore said surveys conducted of brush growth indicate that this will be a "critical'' fire season.
"We've seen a big change in our brush growth this year,'' he said. "So some of our annual crops, our grass, are a lot higher than they previously have been. We do still have some of our dead trees in the local mountains that will create problems for us, so we're expecting, as you have heard before, one of the worst fire seasons ever.''
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Fire officials urged residents to act now to clear brush from around their homes, creating a defensible space that can help stop or slow the spread of wildfires. Moore said residents living in wildfire-prone areas need to create a plan for evacuating if a blaze threatens their home.
"Being prepared to go and being able to leave early, getting your bags packed and knowing what your escape routes will be -- and then when we have those evacuations that come into play they're ready to leave early,'' he said.
Los Angeles County Fire Department Chief Daryl Osby said El Nino brought just enough rain to fuel the growth of grass and brush that can drive fires during the dry summer months.
"There is a significant amount of dead fuels in the region, as indicated by the fire that we had last week in Topanga, the Calabasas area,'' Osby said. "We had a fire there that burned over 500 acres. We had to evacuate over 5,000 people. That fire was unprecedented in this region. Typically the fuels are not dry enough in this region until late summer or fall to have a fire there.
"... So that could be an indicator in relation to this upcoming fire season,'' Osby said.
Dave Teter, deputy director for fire protection programs for Cal Fire, said Southern California has largely been spared in recent years from large- scale, damaging wildfires.
"It is only a matter of time, so the time to begin to prepare is now,'' he said. "Despite the cool, foggy weather that we're under this morning, it will not last, and the Santa Ana winds will be upon us before we know it. Residents must be prepared for the inevitable wildfires, because it is part of living in this beautiful state.''
Cal Fire has a website at www.readyforwildfire.org that provides tips for residents on how to prepare for wildfire season.
"The changing climate in combination with the unprecedented drought ... and literally tens of millions of dead trees only increase the existing wildfire risk that our state's Mediterranean climate invites each and every year,'' Teter said.