Authorities prepare for Santa Ana winds; wildfires


With the first Santa Ana wind event of the fall looming in San Diego County, authorities said Thursday they are as prepared as they have ever been for wildfires.

A second firefighting helicopter that can operate at night, more state and county aerial assets and improved brush management has the city ready for dry winds that might come as soon as this weekend, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said at a news conference in Rancho Penasquitos.

“We’re much better prepared than we’ve ever been,’’ Sanders said.

Offshore winds of 35-40 mph are expected to begin Sunday and continue through Monday, according to forecaster Stan Wasowski of the National Weather Service.

The Santa Ana conditions will be typical for early October and nothing close to what took place at the beginning of last year’s firestorms, Wasowski said. He said people will notice the dramatic cooling over the next day or two more than the wind.

Still, officials are taking no chances.

Cal Fire Capt. Ned Nickerson said five fire engines from Northern and Central California will arrive in San Diego County by Sunday afternoon, and more will be stationed in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, where the winds are expected to be stronger.

Cal Fire will operate with peak staffing during the Santa Ana event and three reserve engines will be activated, Nickerson said.

The fire captain said he’s already spoken with Navy and Marine Corps officials, who have promised two helicopters will be immediately available if a fire breaks out.

The two SuperScooper aircraft leased by the county worked “very well’’ in Wednesday’s brush fire at Camp Pendleton, Nickerson said.

He said an incident command team will be in place to “immediately deal with logistical issues.’’

The U.S. Forest Service will station 10 air tankers in Southern California this weekend, including two at the Ramona Airport. The normal complement of three USFS helicopters will be doubled.

Tracy Jarman, the chief of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, said her agency is also ready.

“Our burning conditions in Southern California continue to stay at critical levels,’’ Nickerson said.

The region has been in a drought for years, causing low moisture levels in vegetation, Nickerson said. The small amounts of rain in recent winters have only added more grass for fuel, he said.

The captain said the wildfires of 2003 and 2007 left about 30 percent of the back country untouched.

County officials have been warning in recent months that a major swath of dry brush, unburned by previous fires, lies in rural areas east of El Cajon and Spring Valley.

Authorities said property-owners should make sure they create a 100-foot defensible space free of brush around their homes, trim large ornamental plants usually found close to houses, register their cell phone numbers for emergency notifications at

, and follow the steps outlined in the Wildfire Awareness Guide recently mailed by the county of San Diego to about a million households in fire-prone areas.

Equipment used to clear brush should not be used after 10 a.m. on dry days, because sparks from the gear often cause fires, authorities said.