LOS ANGELES – Facing another potentially disastrous fire season, authorities in Southern California are contemplating drastic steps to keep flames at bay, including closing popular national forests to visitors.
In the past week, fires have destroyed more than 48,000 acres of dry brush and trees. Thousands of residents were evacuated, but only a handful of homes and other structures were lost.
Nearly all of the fires were contained by Friday.
Angeles National Forest (search) supervisor Jody Noiron said this week that the steady onslaught of blazes was unprecedented this early in the fire season.
If the hot, dry weather conditions continue, forest officials "may be faced with some very tough decisions" to restrict use of national forests or close them, Noiron said.
Stanton Florea, a spokesman for the national forest, said the closures are only one of many measures being eyed by fire officials.
"There are many other levels of fire restrictions that we'd go to prior to that," he said.
Those measures could include restricting campfires and stoves and closing at-risk areas, he said.
Southern California is in the fifth year of a drought, and temperatures in the fire areas have consistently reached the upper 90s. Firefighters said those conditions make it seem more like October — the height of fire season — than mid-July.
California saw its worst fire season ever last year, when a series of gigantic blazes burned across more than 750,000 acres, destroying 3,650 homes and killing 24 people.
Those firestorms all developed in October — a time when brush and timber, deprived of rain throughout the region's dry summers, are most susceptible to fires driven by hot Santa Ana winds.
Citing extreme fire danger, authorities last year shut down the Cleveland and Angeles national forests and part of the San Bernardino National Forest for a time.
In the Cleveland National Forest (search), campfires were banned, camping in remote areas was prohibited, and recreational use was restricted only to developed areas where firefighters had easy access.
The closure of the forest east of San Diego did not apply to private property within the forest. Highways were kept open.
Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Mike McCormick said this month's blazes suggest a long summer ahead.
"These are the conditions: hot, dry, low humidity and windy," he said. "So we'll just try to get some rest, then go out and do it again."