August 17, 2008

Officials Stepping Up Fire Prevention Campaign

By Ben Baeder

-- Photo Gallery: Fire danger

Even as Angeles National Forest officials this week raised the level of fire danger, they reported Thursday that the number of blazes started this year is dramatically lower than previous years.

So far this year, 107 fires have been started in the forest, compared to 298 during 2007 and 284 the year before, according to Stanton Florea, fire information officer for the Angeles National Forest.

"We would like to think it has something to do with our fire- prevention efforts," Florea said. "But these statistics fluctuate so much it's hard to say what happened."

Florea and the staff at the U.S. Forest Service on Wednesday raised the fire-danger level to "very high," which is the fourth- highest of six levels.

The designation results from a combination of factors, including weather and how much moisture plants retain, he said.

In the San Gabriel Canyon on Thursday, Florea found plenty of evidence of illegal fires, including charred sticks on open ground and burned trash.

Breezes that blow through the canyons could easily push burning embers into dry brush, he said.

About 90 percent of all fires in the forest during the past 10 years have been caused by humans, he said.

The low number of fires in the Angeles National Forest stands in contrast to statewide statistics, where more than one million acres have burned so far this year, mostly in Central California, which Florea said was an all-time high.

The fires stretched thin local fire departments, who sent crews to help out.

"We had everybody working," said Jim Anderson, the San Marino fire marshal. His department sent crews to fight a fire in Goleta.

While the department was never short-staffed, firefighters have worked longer and harder than normal, he said.

"The guys, when they leave home for more than a week, it always takes a toll," he said.

While some ecologists argue that fires are necessary for the forest's ecosystem, the hundreds of fires that typically burn at lower elevations do more harm than good, said Rick Halsey of The California Chaparral Institute.

Scientists studying tree rings are finding that the forest historically experienced big fires at 100- to 200-year intervals, he said.

Constant small fires lead to weeds crowding out native species, Halsey said.

Florea agreed, saying the Forest Service lists non-native plants as one of the four major threats to the forest.

He hopes residents keep being careful.

"The year's not over yet, but it's safe to say we're doing very well, so far," he said.

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