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Fighting Increased Fire Danger with Increased Vigilance

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New Fire Watch program seeks to help curb wildfire during record dry spell in California.

Over the last 12 months, Orange County has seen less than half of the normal monthly rainfall. In May of this year, we received less than 5% of normal precipitation, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). Extreme drought conditions are expected to persist or intensify through the summer. These conditions have brought an earlier “fire season” to Southern California, with local fire watch groups deploying in January, March, April and May of this year.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center indicates a higher probability of  warmer-than-normal conditions in Southern California through August, and above-normal wildland fire potential is predicted by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). In these conditions, watching out for suspicious or irresponsible activity becomes even more critical. Several groups — including Fire Safe Council of East Orange County Canyons, Great Laguna Coast Fire Safe Council and Rancho Mission Viejo Land Stewards — organize and deploy fire watch volunteers during Red Flag Warnings issued by NWS to help prevent wildfire. The largest of these groups is now the Orange County Fire Watch program.

The program began in early 2014, with the merger of the OC Parks Fire Watch Volunteer program and the Irvine Ranch Conservancy Fire Watch. The centrally-managed group now deploys officially to all OC Parks wilderness-adjacent park facilities and to the county’s Irvine Ranch Open Space, including Limestone Canyon, Black Star Canyon, Weir Canyon and Fremont Canyon. The group also deploys fire watch volunteers to areas in the City of Irvine. This newly-combined program is the largest volunteer fire watch group in Southern California and adds significantly to the network of fire watch groups.  

The goal of the Orange County Fire Watch program is to prevent wildfires by being vigilant, educating the public, watching for suspicious or irresponsible behavior, and reporting potential fire danger to emergency services. Volunteers are usually stationed along roadsides adjacent to open space or wilderness parks, watching for situations like a car pulling over onto dry grass or a dragging tow chain throwing sparks. It’s these types of unintentional acts that can ignite a catastrophic wildfire in extreme drought conditions.  Stopping on the side of the road to take a photo, and parking on dry grass can be as dangerous as throwing a cigarette butt out of a car window. 

In our local wildlands, fire fuels such as dry grasses and dead weeds are at record or near-record low moisture levels.  The brief greening of the hills has already gone, leaving plenty of dry kindling for fire. According to the NIFC seasonal outlook report for summer, “exceptionally dry fuel conditions coupled with little chance of meaningful precipitation will keep large fire potential well above normal during the June-September time period.” 

As of March of this year, CAL FIRE (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) has already responded to three times the number of brush fires as they had by that time in 2013. Fire watch volunteers seek to prevent these small ignitions, or at least report them quickly. The Orange County Fire Watch program is part of the Orange County Fire Watch Network: volunteer groups across Orange County coordinating information and deployments during Red Flag Warnings. This network allows for a more cohesive, consistent prevention effort.