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This could be LA’s worst fire season in years

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Lots of rain nurtured unprecedented brush growth, creating the ideal fuel for wildfires

The 2007 Griffith Park fire, seen from the 5 Freeway.
Atwater Village Newbie / Curbed LA flickr pool

After a winter of historically heavy rain with record-breaking precipitation and reservoirs filled to overflowing, wildfires seem like a distant threat as LA heads into summer. But local agencies are concerned that the heavy rain has created dangerous conditions as we start fire season—yes, conditions that could be even more dangerous than during times of drought.

For the past five years, Southern California has entered its fire season with the same disadvantages: Blisteringly hot temperatures, exceptionally low precipitation, and lots of dead trees due to low soil moisture (or other drought-related reasons). Last year, the increased fire risk resulted in four major blazes by mid-July, including the terrifying Sand Fire that burned 40,000 acres in Santa Clarita.

This year is different. While all the rain and snow we got this winter means we have more water on hand than usual for fire-fighting needs, it also caused unprecedented plant growth, which creates the ideal fuel for potential wildfires. That super bloom? Not looking so super anymore.

Grass is far more dangerous than dead trees when it comes to wildfires as the fuel is light and brittle, meaning it ignites easily and spreads quickly. Southern California hillsides are covered in grasses that are four to five feet tall, Ventura County Fire Department Captain Richard Sauer told the Simi Valley Acorn.

“It’s been at least 10 years since we’ve seen this kind of growth because of the rain, and the problem is that the grass is now dried out and it doesn’t take much to get a fire going,” he said.

Wildfires are also becoming more frequent in the Western U.S. because of the way we build our cities. As LA sprawls, neighborhoods at the fringes butt up against tinder-like wilderness. In the past 40 years, the number of Americans living in what's known as the wildland-urban interface has doubled, exposing more homeowners to extreme fire risk. Firefighters and the cities they serve must then spend more time and resources protecting homes in these zones. A fire last year in Big Sur that cost the state $200 million was named the costliest fire in U.S. history.

Curbing fire risk through brush clearance—including the use of grass-chomping goats—is becoming a routine early summer activity for homeowners who live in canyons. (Although it’s important you do it right; a brush fire last month in Brentwood was sparked by a weed whacker.) The better option, according to ecologists, is prescriptive burning, where a controlled fire can help eliminate grass and also replenish the soil. But try telling the citizens of Calabasas you want to blacken their backyards.