Three factors – drought, climate change and bark beetles – make this fire season potentially riskier than in the past, fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse told the City Council in a presentation Tuesday.
Surrounded on three sides by wilderness, fire factors are intensifying in Laguna Beach because the wildlands are drier than usual, LaTendresse said. “We’ve already had several fires here in Orange County,” he said.
The recent 46-acre fire in Laguna Canyon nearly three weeks ago, which cost $500,000, was most likely caused by a person, LaTendresse informed the council, although nothing specific is yet being released by the Orange County Fire Authority. There was a fire off the Ortega Highway this past Monday and another at Camp Pendleton Tuesday, he said.
The first fear factor is a five-year drought, LaTendresse outlined. The second is extended high temperatures throughout the country and the third is a “massive tree die-off” due to a bark beetle invasion in nearby wilderness areas, he said.
“I don’t want to call it global warming,” he said, “but the National Weather Service is saying that we’re having hotter years; 2014 and 2015 were the hottest years on record for us, and we’re having a beetle infestation going on in our trees that is killing our forests and our wildland areas.”
El Nino didn’t bring the expected rains. Only six inches were recorded in Orange County this year, less than in Los Angeles and San Diego, LaTendresse said. Normal rainfall averages 12 to 13 inches, he said.
“Hey, it’s hot out there,” he said. Record heat years, such as 2014 and 2015, only make the drought worse. The late spring rain spurt sprouted new growth that quickly died off and became dry brush, he reported.
The good news, average late summer and fall thunderstorms are expected although Santa Ana winds are also anticipated, he added.
Less than six inches of precipitation were recorded in each of the last five years with a contrasting 23 inches in 2010-11 alone, he said. Most of Southern California, particularly the coastal regions, is in a severe drought, he said.
Over the last five years, 66 million trees have died or are dying in the Sierra Nevada wilderness due to a bark beetle infestation, LaTendresse reported.
“Orange County is seeing a similar infestation in the oak trees,” in nearby wilderness areas, he said, such as Santiago Canyon near the city of Orange and the Cleveland National Forest off the Ortega Highway. There are some infested trees at UC Irvine as well, he said.
“This has the potential to be a significant or critical fire year,” LaTendresse said. Fire services use a predictive system to “look into the future,” which is saying that the coastal areas and the Northern California Sierras are rated high fire potential for July and August.
“If we have another day like October 27, 1993, with those wind conditions, we’re not going to be able to stop it,” said LaTendresse, in response to Mayor Steve Dicterow’s question about comparing current conditions to 1993.
That year, the fire in Laguna Beach was the 24th out of 26 burning in California with three more following, LaTendresse said. Monitoring, inter-agency and public communications, training, equipment, response systems and water storage have dramatically improved since then, he said. One change is that aircraft dropping fire retardant will now be diverted from an ongoing fire to assist in stopping a new outbreak before it spreads, he said.
Another change is that discarded cigarettes in wilderness areas or along roads are less a danger than before, LaTendresse said. All states now require cigarettes to be “fire safe” or self-extinguishing if the smoke is not being inhaled, he said. Certain conditions, such as wind direction, the position of the discarded burning cigarette and ambient temperatures, must occur simultaneously to create a hazard, he said.
The fire department is also ridding dry brush from wilderness areas adjacent to homes, which increases defensible space for firefighters. They’re also cleaning empty lots of weeds and debris. Police and park rangers will also patrol wilderness parks more often.
“We’re kicking the program back into gear again with the summer season and more complaints,” said LaTendresse.
From now through Labor Day, 15 random night patrols will occur at one particular hotspot for after-dark gatherings near the trailhead off Alta Laguna Park in the Top of the World neighborhood, said Jim Beres, civilian services supervisor for the police department.
Council members expressed concern about homeless people camping and using campfires in the wilderness parks, particularly Aliso-Wood Canyons, and the need for more patrols in the parks, even suggesting closing the parks during red-flag fire conditions.
“We’re sitting on a fire keg, so to speak,” said council member Toni Iseman, asking LaTendresse if homeless people could be removed from wilderness areas. She suggested that the rangers confiscate the person’s property.
That isn’t done due to American Civil Liberties Union stipulations, Brad Barker of Orange County Parks told the council. “We can have them leave right then, but as far as taking their things, we have to give them a 72-hour notice,” Barker said.
Council member Rob Zur Schmiede suggested that the county parks and the city coordinate their approach to the problem. The city already confiscates property from illegal camps and issues higher fines after a warning is given, according to City Manager John Pietig and Beres.
“I don’t believe that we give that much notice when people are illegally camping on the property,” said Pietig.
“I find the idea that you have to give a 72-hour notice to someone who’s actually living in the park, when the park closes every night, I find that hard to accept,” said Zur Schmiede.