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After a mild fire year, Southern California crews look ahead to 2024

Hayley Smith, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

LOS ANGELES -- On a cool, cloudy morning one day last week, Albert Rivas approached a pile of dry wood in the Angeles National Forest and set it on fire.

The pile roared to life, and within minutes, it was spewing flames at least 10 feet tall. Rivas, a firefighter with the United States Forest Service, paused briefly to admire his handiwork before aiming his gasoline- and diesel-filled drip torch at another pile nearby.

By morning’s end, he and more than a dozen other Forest Service firefighters had burned about 17 acres’ worth of woody material around the Lower San Antonio Fire Station at the base of Mt. Baldy — a forest management feat they attributed to favorable weather and fuel conditions.

“It’s all about going at it the right way, correctly, with all the techniques,” Rivas said as smoke swirled around him.

This year has indeed been favorable for Southern California firefighters. Heavy rains in winter— as well as a rare tropical storm in August— put an end to three years of punishing drought and made the landscape far less likely to burn.

“It was a fairly mild year,” said Robert Garcia, fire chief of the Angeles National Forest. “The fire season started later and, throughout most of the state, ended early. That provided us some reprieve from that intensity to our workforce, but also some tremendous opportunity this year to get out there and do more treatment on the landscape.”

 

In 2023, there were 92 confirmed fires in the Angeles National Forest, the largest of which was about 420 acres. Statewide, firefighters responded to nearly 6,900 blazes that collectively burned about 320,000 acres, according to data from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

That’s a far cry from 2020 and 2021, the state’s two worst fire years on record, which together saw nearly 7 million acres burn, including California’s first million-acre fire.

Last year’s acreage was also relatively small — about 363,000 acres — but the blazes claimed more than 700 structures and nine lives.

Garcia attributed much of this year’s tameness to the rains, which ended the “off the charts” dryness that had plagued the landscape in recent years, priming it to burn. What’s more, the weather freed up resources across the state, meaning more crews were able to prepare for fires and respond when they ignited, keeping the numbers small. Some Southern California crews even deployed to assist with larger fires in Oregon, Washington and Canada.

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