With the relatively early-season fire in the Las Flores area and the dire warnings in the news and from the Forest Service, everyone has it on his or her mind: Are we indeed facing a destructive brush fire season?

Rest assured - I don't believe the danger is any worse than other years. Do clear dead brush around your property. Do keep your yard watered and try for greener, fire resistant plants. Do be vigilant. If you spot smoke, the fire department would rather respond to a false alarm than ignore a real hazard. But don't be overly worried.

Everyone is saying - with too little rain everything is dead or drying out. This is partially true and the hazard is there, but I don't believe it's any worse than usual. True, we've had a very dry winter - only .81 inches of rain, when we should have averaged 4.11 inches. Through (at least), April 20, we've had more rain in April (at .15 inches) than in January or March 2007. As stated in last month's column, the driest since 1984 (for us).

But lack of rainfall also means fewer than usual fire-prone plants. Consider the facts:

Weeds, grasses and seasonable annuals, from this season and past years, burn the hottest and fastest - but are short lived. And with lack of them that hazard is much reduced.

Perennials like Joshua trees, junipers, cacti and others, are less affected by the lack of rainfall and are therefore, at no more risk than usual. Those that have been weakened by disease however are probably at more risk. I've been through the Las Flores area, although not recently, and I am aware of the large number of dead manzanitas and others that have been killed by disease. Those are hazardous and are probably the ones that burned in the fire in March. There are also a lot of junipers in that area and I'll bet they fared much better. Junipers, when healthy and green, do not burn easily. Joshua trees in good heath are also normally fire resistant.

What are the long-term effects from a wildfire? We can weigh both the destructive effects and the beneficial ones. The heat from a very hot fire glazes the soil, producing an insoluble surface - like caliche. However, that kind of fire is rare. Otherwise, the more moderate heat increases porosity and it adds ash to the soil, increasing its fertility. A wildfire also damages or destroys valuable flora, or disrupts ecosystems, but it also clears a path for new plant growth and knocks down dead brush, in additional to disturbing wildlife. And of course, it sometimes destroys or damages homes. A wildfire also kills or reduces destructive insects, like bark beetles, thereby opening the way for new, healthy plants to regenerate.
The net result: a wildfire is both destructive and beneficial.

Remember - grasses and annuals burn the fastest and hottest but that type of fire is short-lived. Especially clear those away from your property. Perennials, like the Joshua trees, junipers, and greasewood (creosote) burn reluctantly and slowly. Don't be overly concerned with them unless they are already dead - if so, destroy them. Follow guidelines regarding brush clearance and get rid of tree limbs that overhang your roof and other structures. Encourage green plants, especially around fences and most important - around wooden fences. If you have a fire-prone roof consider installing sprinklers on it that can be turned on at a short notice. This will potentially be more effective than a garden hose. It would be far better though to replace your roof with one (like tile) that won't burn.

Be vigilant but don't worry too much. I doubt that we are going to have a fire season that is worse than usual, and (because of lack of annuals) maybe less hazardous than normal.

And cheer up! We might have a wetter-than-usual spring, summer, fall and winter. I doubt that the drought will be prolonged.