Member-supported news for Southern California
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Support for KPCC comes from:

Monrovia fire was first of what firefighters expect to be a hot, dry and difficult season

A Los Angeles County Fire Department helicopter drops water on a fire burning on the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in Monrovia, Calif., on Saturday, April 20, 2013.
John Antczak/AP
A Los Angeles County Fire Department helicopter drops water on a fire burning in the Monrovia foothills on April 20th.

The brush fire in Monrovia over the weekend gave the community a scare when it burned 125 acres and forced the evacuation of 200 homes for nearly a day. Fire officials say it was the first large fire was the first in what could be a long, hot, dry and dangerous season

The fire was started after a gardener accidentally ignited some brush with his equipment. Monrovia Fire Chief Chris Donovan says what happened next says a lot about the summer to come.

"We found that the fire burned extremely hot, it burned very fast and rapid uphill and it spread pretty quick," Donovan recalls. "This is an indication of a very early fire season that will be very intense here in Southern California."

He says a few things are to blame for this potentially dangerous season. First of all, it's dry. This year is on track to be Southern California's fourth driest on record. L.A. has seen just a paltry 5.14 inches of rain this winter and spring.

But adding to the problem is the fact that large parts of the region haven't burned in decades. That worries Richard Minnich, professor of Earth Sciences at the University of California, Riverside.

The area that burned this weekend hadn't seen a fire in more than 50 years. But Minnich says nearby peaks have gone even longer without a fire.

"For ,example Monrovia peak was last burned in 1924," he notes. "It's an explosive carpet bomb basically ready to go off from Monrovia all the way over that mountain and down to the San Gabriel river on the other side."

UC Riverside's Richard Minnich says fires are an important part of maintaining an area's ecosystem. He says the best approach is to allow controlled burns during the summer when the winds tend to blow away from populated areas.

In addition to Monrovia peak, Minnich says parts of the San Bernardino and Santa Ana mountains are also ripe for a big fire.

Monrovia Fire Chief Chris Donovan agrees that old chaparral is a problem. He's advising residents in fire zones to clear all brush around their homes up to a distance of 200 feet.

Gazing up at the San Gabriel foothills, Donovan says he sees something more menacing than a peaceful view.

"For most fire chiefs...what we see year round is a threat," he remarks.