What to expect from a busy start to the fire season
6 mins read

What to expect from a busy start to the fire season

What to expect from a busy start to the fire season

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Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley have recently been hit by a series of grass fires as a result of a prolonged heat wave that has raised temperatures in some places 10 degrees or more above normal.

Firefighters kept most of the local fires low. Of the half-dozen blazes in nine days, all but one burned fewer than a dozen acres. Two threatened residential areas from the start, but no homes were damaged.

The start of the fire season comes after two consecutive wet years. Two years ago, the county was drenched in the wettest weather in years, which reduced the threat of wildfires. This past winter also brought above-average rainfall, but not as much and not as late in the season.

Ventura County Fire Chief Dustin Gardner said conditions in the county could return to normal.

“Our grasses are dry and we’re seeing a lot of fires,” Gardner said.

More rain tends to bring more grass, which can lead to more ignition as it turns brown and crispy. At the same time, rain keeps moisture levels in the brush higher than usual, which helps reduce the threat of larger, uncontrolled forest fires.

That is, at least for now. Authorities are predicting a hot summer. The region could experience an above-average threat of large wildfires in late summer and early fall.

What caused the fires in Thousand Oaks and Simi?

The recent heat wave dried out grasses — fire fuel — that had built up during consecutive wet years, said Sean Anderson, an environmental science professor at CSU Channel Islands near Camarillo.

Anderson said this is likely a major reason for the recent increase in fires.

Four fires broke out in the Simi Valley area from June 28 to July 3. The first, known as the Sentinel Fire, broke out on the northern side of town, where homes were set back into open hillsides. The blaze burned nearly 5 acres before a large response, including water-dropping helicopters and a firefighting plane, stopped the blaze from spreading.

Two days later, a small fire burned less than an acre in the Santa Susana Knolls outside Simi Valley. Then, on July 3, two more fires broke out.

The smaller Sequoia Fire burned just under 2 acres in the foothills near Sequoia Avenue and Aspen Street. The Sharp Fire then spread throughout the city.

The fire, which broke out near the 2800 block of Sharp Road, quickly threatened nearby homes and spread across 133 acres.

The causes of most of the recent fires are under investigation, officials said. But the blaze erupted Friday night when a vehicle caught fire along the southbound intersection of Highway 23 and Highway 101. The flames started on an adjacent hillside and burned about 13 acres along the south side of 101.

A day later, a sixth fire broke out in an open area near Arroyo View Street in the Newbury Park area. The cause of the View fire, reported around 2 p.m. Saturday, remains under investigation. However, several neighbors reported fireworks going off moments before the fire broke out, according to the fire department.

In both the View and Sharp fires, which directly threatened homes, the department sent its first engines to protect buildings and evacuate people from danger, Gardner said. Aircraft units made drops to knock down the flames, and hand crews and bulldozers worked to get around the fire.

What will the rest of the fire season bring?

Moisture levels in brush across the county last week were well above critical levels — when brush ignites more easily and flames spread faster and farther — and slightly above the historical average for this time of year.

But as the heat continues to rise above normal, the brush is drying out and will continue to do so, said Capt. Ryan Matheson of the county fire department.

The blaze is one of more than 3,400 that have burned 150,000 acres this year, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said this week.

The largest eruption occurred in Santa Barbara County on Friday near Lake Zaca, sending tall columns of smoke into the Los Padres National Forest. The blaze, known as the Lake Fire, had burned more than 40 square miles by Tuesday morning.

What happens next may depend on this year’s seasonal winds and ultimately rainfall.

The latest fires are burning in hot, dry conditions but mostly without extreme winds, said Daniel Swain, a UCLA climate scientist. That will likely change later this summer and into the fall.

Then, areas could see strong winds mixed with critically dry fuels. There could also be more competition for firefighting aircraft and crews, Swain said during an online briefing over the weekend.

“That’s where the risk comes in that things can really go wrong,” he said.

With gusty Santa Ana winds, the risk of larger fires increases, Gardner said. The increased threat remains until rain falls in the area, he said.

How to Get Emergency Alerts and Protect Your Home

To sign up for emergency alerts in Ventura County, go to readyventuracounty.org/vc-alert. For wildfire information, visit vcemergency.com.

Local and state fire agencies have posted lists of tips on how to protect your home from wildfires at readyforwildfire.org/prepare-for-wildfire/get-ready/hardening-your-home/ and vcfd.org.

Cheri Carlson covers environment and county government for the Ventura County Star. Contact her at [email protected] or 805-437-0260.