LOS ANGELES – Californians can expect a dangerous summer wildfire season due to a dry winter that has left the normally green hills of spring parched and tinder-dry, authorities warned.
State fire crews have responded to more than 680 wildfires since the beginning of the year — some 200 more than average for the period. They included several 300- and 400-acre blazes around the state.
Local fire crews also have been busy. Last weekend, a fire in the foothills above Monrovia, northeast of Los Angeles, prompted the evacuation of about 200 homes. A wind-whipped, 170-acre wildfire earlier this month burned two houses and threatened 160 others in rural Ventura County before.
Last week, the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection increased staffing in Southern California and moved air tankers to bases in preparation for what promises to be one of the driest years on record, according to a statement released Wednesday.
The Angeles National Forest, which covers more than 1,000 square miles north of Los Angeles, planned to raise its fire danger level from moderate to high on Friday and to bring in dozens of seasonal firefighters early Sunday.
Lack of rain has left chaparral and brush as dry now as they usually get in June, said forest fire information officer Nathan Judy. It would take a storm dumping 2 1/2 inches of rain to reduce that danger — and that is unlikely, he said.
"We're coming into the summer and we're not going to get a whole lot of rain, we know that," he said.
Judy urged campers and visitors to be careful with their campfires and cigarettes and to avoid parking cars on the dry brush, where a hot muffler or a spark could set it ablaze.
Humans cause at least 90 percent of fires in the forest, he said.
The water content of California's snowpack, which normally provides about a third of California's water, was only 52 percent of average at a time when it normally is at its peak, according to a Department of Water Resources survey released last month.
That was due, in part, to a record dry January and February, the agency reported.
Cloudy days have failed deliver, dropping only scattered showers measurable in the hundredths of an inch.
The country has been locked into a weather pattern that has seen storms roll down from Alaska eastward, bringing rain and snow to the center of the country but only dry winds to California, said Eric Boldt, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.
Since Jan. 1, downtown Los Angeles has received about 2 inches of rain, instead of the usual 10 inches, and much of the state has seen record dry conditions, he said.
"We're about two months ahead of where we should be in terms of drying out," Boldt said. "People might notice as they're driving the freeways that the hills are getting brown. Typically, they'd be green."
With its wettest months behind it, California probably won't see any significant rain until fall, Boldt said.
"It doesn't look promising," he said.