Amid a dryer than usual spring, Gov. Schwarzenegger signed an executive order Friday to mobilize more firefighters to battle wildfires and instructed authorities to be more aggressive against residents who fail to clear brush around their homes.
"This year's fire season has already begun," he said, noting that a 1,300-acre fire is burning about 30 miles from Red Bluff in Tehama County, about 150 miles north of Sacramento.
Schwarzenegger said the order would let state emergency officials assemble more engines and equipment. He also urged the public to do its part to prevent fires and to make their homes less vulnerable to fire.
Schwarzenegger instructed state fire officials to begin fining rural homeowners who don't clear their properties of brush, trees and dry grass. A 2005 law required that homeowners who live near forests or grasslands increase the so-called "defensible space" around their houses from 30 feet to 100 feet.
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State Fire Marshal Kate Dargan said inspectors have issued few citations to homeowners who ignore the law. Instead, firefighters have focused on educating them about the dangers of overgrown properties.
During a Capitol news conference Friday, Schwarzenegger said he is ordering inspectors to be more strict about citing homeowners who don't act. Fines can range from $100 to $500. If homeowners still refuse, officials can clean up the property and send them the bill.
The governor also instructed officials to crack down on residents who set off illegal fireworks.
He said he has invited fire officials to give him advice on protecting his home.
"I was not aware of it until an expert from the fire department told me that, 'This is terrible. This is a fire hazard all around your house -- you are living in the middle of it, get rid of this grass, get rid of these shrubs or you are going to be in trouble.'
"I think it is important for people to one, know that, and two, get advice," the governor said. "Get advice from your local fire department. I think people need to be vigilant, and if they aren't, they need to be fined."
In the Northern San Joaquin Valley, grass along freeways and rural roads is more like the yellow strands of late June than the usually more lush early May, according to Modesto and Ceres fire officials.
That's for two reasons, Ceres Fire Capt. Jeff Serpa said. First, the lack of rain has meant grass has dried sooner than usual, and second, sustained winds have further dehydrated the landscape.
But limited rain in March and April meant that not as much grass grew. So the fuel supply is about average, Serpa said, and officials predict a fairly average fire year for the area. That goes for the Sierra, too. But the grass in the foothills also is drying early.
And officials are bracing for another tinderbox year in Southern California.
"In the southern part of the state, they are already seeing late-summer conditions as far as weather and field moisture," said Battalion Chief Hugo Patino of the Modesto Fire Department.
Under mutual aid agreements, local crews could find themselves dispatched to any wildland fires in Tuolumne and Santa Clara counties. Last year, they responded to the Southern California firestorms.
On the Net: Read about defensible space
requirements at www.fire.ca.gov.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Bee staff writer Inga Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2324.