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Crews train near Santa Margarita in preparation for fire season

jmellom@thetribunenews.com

Peak fire season will arrive a little later this year, experts say, thanks to late seasonal showers that have kept San Luis Obispo County’s hillsides greener for longer.

The last of the season’s showers likely fell at the end of April, said John Lindsey, a local weather forecaster and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. media spokesman.

The county’s peak fire season — the time when the state brings into the county seasonal crews, 12 more engines and a water-drop aircraft — will span from mid-May to October this year. The season usually begins in April.

As grasses soak up the last moisture of the rainy period, CalFire officials remind the public that now is the time to cut back and clear yards as well as prepare family evacuation plans.

“All it will take is continuous, dry, windy days, and this grass will turn brown and be ready to burn,” CalFire Deputy Chief Rob Lewin said.

As fire crews gear up with fresh training, authorities and cities urge locals to mow weeds before 10 a.m. and remove yard debris. That, authorities say, is the area’s best bet at managing wildfire.

“Each fire season brings another wave of fires,” said Mike Cole, a retired CalFire battalion chief, who recalled decades of experience in fighting treacherous blazes. “People get very comfortable until it happens again, but they have to be diligent and prepare.”

The added rain this year has also caused more grass to grow.

“It’s all about a thing we call ‘ladder fuel,’ ” said Tom Peterson, fire marshal for Atascadero.“When a wildfire starts in the grass, it races up the ‘ladder,’ ” he said, which can bring it more quickly to heavier fuels, such as trees and homes.

This will likely cause more fires to start, Clint Bullard, fire inspector with CalFire said, but likely not more destructive fires overall because grass isn’t one of the larger fuels.

The state’s budget problems won’t impose any cutbacks on fire resources this year, Lewin said. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared this week Wildfire Awareness Week to remind residents to be vigilant, state officials said.

California has stressed in the last several years that it doesn’t have just one season when fires occur, Lewin said, but that’s it’s actually year-round.

Fire crews again took part in the multiagency training exercise in Santa Margarita on Saturday to help sharpen firefighters’ skills.

There were not any test fires to battle, but participants worked on laying hoses, using hand tools, operating engines and communication systems and reviewing aircraft safety.

The San Luis Obispo County Training Officers Association, with CalFire as the host this year, presented the exercise, which was funded partially with a state grant. A total cost wasn’t available.

County fire risks

The county, prone to infernos in its canyons and vast patches of brush lands and wooded areas, hasn’t had a major fire in more than a decade.

“It’s always the same drumbeat,” Cole said. “Wildfires in California — they’ll always happen again.”

The last major one in the county was the Logan Fire in August 1997. It burned roughly 50,000 acres in the Huasna area east of Arroyo Grande as flames straddled Highway 166 between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties for a week.

Before Logan was the Highway 58 fire in August 1996 in the Santa Margarita and Creston areas. It blazed through nearly 107,000 acres and 13 structures. It is listed as No. 17 on CalFire’s list of the 20 largest California wildland fires.

California as a whole has seen more damaging fires in recent years, Cole said, as new homes developed in areas that used to be free of residences.

North County spots such as south Atascadero, Santa Margarita, Parkhill Road and the Highway 58 areas to the northeast have a recent history of large-scale, damaging wildland fires, Bullard said. Other stretches in the county prone to fires include the area along Suey Creek Road east of Nipomo, the coastal canyons of Avila Beach and See Canyon, and the North Coast wooded areas of Cambria.

Still, authorities urge residents in all areas to be diligent about their fire preparedness plans.

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