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Drought leaves Vandenberg at risk for severe fire season

Vandenberg Hot Shots crew members (left to right)Marissa Halbeisen, Andrew Klein and James Skiffington  survey the Day Fire.

Vandenberg Hot Shots crew memebers Marissa Halbeisen, Andrew Klein and James Skiffington survey the Day Fire that ravaged 162,700 acres in California in September 2006. About 4,800 firefighters from 39 states spent almost a month trying to contain the fifth-largest California wildfire in history, according to officials who believe the 2007 fire season might be worse.

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- "We burnt an area about 10-feet long by 4-feet wide, and the flames consumed the entire area in less than a minute," said Tim Sandstrom, Vandenberg Fire Department special operations chief. "A grass fire with this much intensity is very uncharacteristic for this time of year. Usually the grass doesn't burn like that until at least August."

Vandenberg Air Force Base typically has a large fire every three to five years, and because of a recent drought, the base is at high risk for an active fire season, according to Mark Smith, a Vandenberg fire department battalion chief.

"Central California is below its average rainfall, creating an extremely dry and dangerous environment," Mr. Smith said.

Over 7,000 acres burned by over a thousand fires in the state of California to date this year, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Since the dry conditions have made many hazardous conditions this year, base personnel should take preventative measures to protect their workstations and homes.

To prevent a fire from burning all the way to a building and causing substantial building damage, Vandenberg requires a 30-foot clearance around the base of the house or building.

"This means any foliage; grass, bush or otherwise, because we are in a very dry season right now and that clearance is required to protect the structure from the intensity of the flames," Mr. Smith said.

Don't just concentrate on the base of the structure; the intensity can ignite dry foliage on the roof as well, he said.

"Don't stack wood against your home, make sure to keep pine needles off the roof and out of the gutters," Mr. Smith said.

Direct contact with a fire is not the only way a building can burn; even sparks from a nearby fire can start a fire in dry brush that can spread to a building.

But paying extra close attention to maintain the surrounding grounds won't guarantee a fireproof season. Human negligence can increase the chances of a fire emergency.

"Another problem is when people don't dispose of their coals from the barbeque properly," Mr. Smith said. "They'll dump the coals on their property line, which effectively ignites the foliage on the property and creating a fire."

Just like at home, people have to be careful when they're out, especially when off-roading, which can easily start a fire in tall grass.

"Traveling off road is dangerous because mufflers will cause fire when they come in contact with dry vegetation," said Mark Farias, Vandenberg Fire Chief. "If you do travel off-road, make sure you have a shove and water extinguisher and don't park in high grass."

For more information on California fire prevention, click here.