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Prescribed Burns Return with Stricter Rules

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This week, the U.S. Forest Service lifted a moratorium on prescribed burns in Cleveland National Forest. A prescribed burn is when firefighters intentionally burn dry brush to reduce fire hazard. The moratorium was imposed a year ago, after one prescribed burn erupted into a wildfire. It ended up burning more than 10,000 acres. KPBS Radio's Andrea Hsu reports, the forest service is once again burning brush, but this time, under stricter rules.

I'm heading up Palomar Mountain on a windy road with Fire Prevention Officer Kerri Uglik. The first prescribed burns of the year are at 5,000 feet. Uglick points out piles of dead trees along the way.

Uglik: The bark beetle came through and pretty much killed most of our pines, and a lot of the cedars have also died because of the drought conditions.

We enter Frye Creek Campground -- a 27 acre area that's the focus of this burn. The idea is the burn will help protect campers in the event of a fire, wild or otherwise. The campground is closed at the moment, but all around is the toasty smell of burning wood. There are five or six piles of burning brush that look like campfires -- with red-hot embers in the middle and smoldering ashes around the edges. Uglick picks up a handful of dirt and nods approvingly.

Uglik: That's what we want. More moisture, keeps it more controlled.

It's rained here in recent days -- and nearby there are still a few patches of snow.

Uglik: This overcast cloud came in that brings the humidity, and brings moisture in the air, so that helps, really helps a lot.

The other thing that helps is a lack of wind - says Engine Captain Cheryl Raines. She's one of a couple dozen firefighters tending to the prescribed burns at Frye Creek.

Raines: We had a lot of wind events this year - geez, I don't think they ended until January or February this year - that's another reason we couldn't burn until now --everything was too dry.

Wind events meaning Santa Ana winds. The Forest Service doesn't do prescribed burns when Santa Anas are in the forecast. And now even tougher rules are in place. No fire can be ignited if the National Weather Service predicts winds above 15 miles per hour.

Firefighters have more work to do when "mopping up" after the burn is over. They have new infrared devices that pick up on remaining hot spots.

The Forest Service hopes the new rules will help improve its record in California. The Associated Press says 30 prescribed burns got out of control on federal land here since 2003.

Here at Frye Creek there are half a dozen fire trucks on hand, in case something goes wrong. Captain Raines and the other firefighters aren't taking any chances. They're suited up in bright yellow flame-resistant gear.

Raines: We have Nomex pants, Nomex shirts, eye protection, hard hats, it's just like going out to a wild-land fire - all the same gear, boots.

There's a saying among firefighters - hurry up and wait. And that certainly seems to be the case here. So while they sit watching the fires, some find other things to do.

Yanez: I knew I was going to burn today - so I figured I'd bring hot dogs today and make hot dogs over the fire.

Dan Yanez's grilling implement of choice? A pitchfork.

Yanez: Usually I'd use a stick but it gets a little warm sometimes, so...

Captain Raines reaches over with a bun and grabs the nicely browned dog.

Raines: Thanks, you're all right! No problem.


And up the road just a bit, I find Firefighter Prawit Hess.

Hess: Since I'm new at bagpipe and never had a music background before, so just practicing.

Hess picked up the bagpipe five months ago after he volunteered to be a member of the Forest Service Honor Guard. He figures he'll get in another couple hours of practice before it's time to mop up the fires.

Prescribed burns in the Cleveland National Forest are scheduled to continue through spring, weather permitting.

For KPBS, I'm Andrea Hsu.

(Photo: A fire prevention team conducts a controlled burn on Palomar Mountain. Andrea Hsu/KPBS ).

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