- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 5, 2009

SAN DIEGO | Fire and government officials here say they are prepared to face any wildfires that could erupt following the onslaught of desert winds later this month, after enhancing their communication and evacuation plans to help avoid the significant damage caused by previous wildfires.

On Friday, at least two fires broke out in San Diego County - one at Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base and another along the U.S.-Mexico border, near Otay Mesa. Neither blaze was considered major as of Friday evening.

Still, authorities expect a long and dangerous wildfire season throughout Southern California, where temperatures in the triple digits and lowered humidity cause critical conditions. The so-called Station fire in Angeles National Forest north of downtown Los Angeles has torched more than 154,000 acres of land, killed two firefighters, destroyed 76 homes and burned three people since it erupted nearly two weeks ago.

“The conditions in San Diego are hauntingly similar to those seen here before the Station fire began,” Carlton Joseph, U.S. Forest Service chief for San Diego, said from the Station fire command post. “Long-term drought has caused a die-back in the chaparral and trees that cover the forest.”

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the arsonist suspected of setting the Station fire.

Crews across California are on watch and ready to respond to areas where disasters occur.

There are units from Northern California, waiting at a staging area in Chino, for example, to be sent to wherever they may be needed, said Nick Schuler, a spokesman for Cal Fire, from a fire near Ortega Highway in Riverside County Friday.

Hot desert winds, known as Santa Ana winds, heighten the fire risk every year, usually beginning in mid-September.

“In Southern California, our fire season lasts all year,” Mr. Schuler said. “Were never caught off guard, because were always watching. But when high Santa Ana winds combine with drought conditions and extremely dry fuels, theres no way that a fire can be brought under immediate control.”

But San Diego County is better prepared for such disasters now.

Since the so-called Cedar and Witch fires whipped through the county in 2003 and 2007 respectively, emergency responders, fire agencies, nonprofit organizations and members of the public have worked together to improve fire prevention and response, evacuation planning and communications.

The Cedar fire destroyed 280,278 acres and 2,820 buildings, and killed 15 people. Cost of damage was estimated at $204 million. The Witch fire torched 197,990 acres, destroyed 1,700 buildings and killed two people. Damage was estimated to be at least $15 million. The cost of damage from the Station fire was said to be $28.5 million as of Friday morning.

The county implemented a reverse-911 phoning plan to alert residents to mandatory evacuations in their neighborhoods.

In hard-hit areas, such as the unincorporated mountain community of Ramona, where the Witch fire broke out, transportation agencies have improved evacuation planning, which will allow traffic lights to remain green in the event that traffic needs to flow in one direction, out of town.

“Ramona doesnt have many ways in or out,” said Chris Anderson, chairwoman of the community’s planning group.

Also, Ramona Airport has extended its runway to allow federal air tankers to take off with a full load of retardant.

San Diego Gas & Electric, the countys public utility, whose power lines were found at fault by several government agencies for starting the Witch fire, is working to implement a controversial power shut-off plan that would take effect during high Santa Ana winds. Some Ramona residents are opposed to the plan.

The county also is looking out for pet owners, ranchers and farmers.

The panic of some horse owners and the concern by county animal services during the 2003 fires have led to a network of animal care responders to accommodate a large range of animals, from pot-bellied pigs to camels. In 2007, parking lots of major chain stores became staging areas for animals that were evacuated from the backcountry.

“Its incredible to witness,” Ms. Anderson said.

The inspector generals office, the county and city of Los Angeles, and some residents whose homes were destroyed by the Station fire have criticized the U.S. Forest Service in recent days for not doing more vegetation clearance in the Angeles National Forest before the blaze.

But Richard Halsey, an environmental educator and a longtime public school biology teacher from Escondido, Calif., said government agencies cannot and should not be held responsible for doing massive clearing of native vegetation in wild land areas.

“The Station fire is not the fault of federal land managers, firefighters or environmental laws,” said Mr. Halsey, who also is the director of the California Chaparral Institute, a research and education organization. “Huge wildfires will occur in Southern California regardless of how the government ‘manages’ its lands. They are an inevitable part of life here.”

Mr. Halsey said many fire scientists are concerned about the “misinformation” that’s being released in response to the latest wildfires.

“To state that the Station fire could have been prevented if the Forest Service had only completed its planned ‘underbrush clearance operations or prescribed burns in the national forest indicates a profound misunderstanding of our regions fire-prone environment. The San Gabriel Mountains are covered primarily by chaparral, not forest. There is no ‘underbrush’ in chaparral, since the entire ecosystem is composed of native shrubs. Calling this area a ‘forest is a misnomer. Considering the condition of the vegetation and where the fire started, it is unreasonable to suggest that 1,500 acres of additional prescribed burning would have prevented the Station fire from scorching more than 145,000 acres.”

Mr. Joseph, the U.S. Forest Service chief for San Diego, said that over the past two years, an insect infestation also has resulted in thousands of dead oak trees in southern San Diego County.

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