With triple-digit temperatures in the Bay Area this week parching its hillsides amid one of the worst droughts in state history, officials here are keeping a wary eye on the fires raging in Southern California and wondering whether we're next.
Dwindling water levels at reservoirs and an unusually warm spring have left large swaths of California dry and facing a high chance of fire danger, according to firefighters and meteorologists. Several fires in San Diego County have consumed about 19,000 acres in the past week, killing one person and forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents.
In the Bay Area, fires in the past few days, including one that started late Friday afternoon and was quickly growing in the Morgan Hill area of the Santa Cruz Mountains, have everyone on edge.
"San Diego just drives home what we've been predicting for a while, with the lack of rain," said Joe Parker, deputy chief of operations for the Santa Clara County Fire Department. "If we get some offshore wind with hot, dry temperatures, it's kind of a perfect storm."
As of last week, CalFire said there had been 1,501 wildfires reported across the state. That's almost twice the average number of incidents the agency has responded to during the same time period in the last five years.
Making matters worse, the moisture content of grasses, shrubs and trees is much lower than it should be in mid-May, said CalFire spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff. Less water means brush is easier to ignite, acting like kindling in a campfire.
"Even grasses that are green are still fuel and will burn rapidly," Tolmachoff said. "All it takes is an hour of sun and some wind on it, and the grass will dry out very quickly."
Areas that are farther from the coast, where temperatures are higher and the air drier, are likely to get more fires, said Jan Null, an independent consultant and former meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
"It's areas like the Delta and around the Altamont Pass that have seen a lot of wildland fires because they are the windiest and warmest spots in the Bay Area," Null said.
Fire officials say they are ready for the season but urge residents to think before throwing cigarette butts out a car window, lighting campfires or using lawn mowers in the middle of the day, which can spark and cause grass fires.
"We are seeing weather conditions that are more like August," said Hugh Henderson, chief of the East Contra Costa Fire District. "People need to be very careful when cleaning their yard and do it early (in the day) before the peak of the heat."
CalFire is also working with water districts around the state to urge residents to conserve water, which will be needed to fight fires. In a serious drought, it doesn't take much to start a fire.
One of the San Diego County fires was started when a construction crew was digging trenches using a backhoe and a spark from the motor ignited grass. That fire, known as the Bernardo Fire, has consumed 1,548 acres and forced thousands of evacuations. The cause of several other San Diego fires is still under investigation, but together the fires have burned through an estimated 19,000 acres -- about 30 square miles -- destroying homes and causing more than $20 million worth of destruction across the region.
In the Bay Area, wary residents are eyeing every small brushfire as a potential disaster. A fire Friday evening near Croy Ridge and Summit roads, near Morgan Hill, had grown to about 7 acres only two hours after it started.
In Walnut Creek, residents near the Arbolado Park neighborhood, which sits only a couple of miles from Mount Diablo, the site of last year's 3,111-acre Morgan Fire, have been put on edge by five suspicious grass fires in the last week -- likely the work of an arsonist, fire investigators say.
"With the heat being what it is, this is a particularly bad time of the year for something like this," said Batallion Chief Bob Atlas.
The incidents come at a time when the Contra Costa Fire Protection District has had to tighten its belt, closing five stations and taking two additional companies out of service over the past three years because of budget cuts.
Elsewhere in the Bay Area, firefighters know it's only a matter of time before a large fire erupts.
Fire danger is everywhere but it's most extreme around open grasslands, like the kind found in the East Bay hills. When there's extreme fire danger, Oakland and Berkeley fire crews and police patrol the hills to ensure no roads are blocked -- but there's been no need for that yet, said Coy Justice, an Oakland fire battalion chief.
"The wind hasn't kicked up high enough for us to go into extreme yet," Justice said.
CalFire Battalion Chief Brandon Leitszky said the nerve-racking, day-to-day battle of the fires in San Diego County have been a strong reminder of one key mindset: Be prepared.
"That kind of thing could happen to us today," he said. "People can be nervous. Sometimes you have a little time, sometimes you don't have much at all. You have to be ready to go just in case.
"Right now we're taking it in stride. We know the conditions are going to be around for most of the summer and we just keep our fingers crossed that the rains show up in October like they are supposed to."
Staff writers David DeBolt, Robert Salonga, Katie Nelson and Rick Hurd contributed to this report.
Fire officials say homeowners in wildfire-prone areas should be taking steps to keep their houses safe long before a blaze begins. Here are some tips:
For more information on preparing for wildfires and defensible space, go to www.ReadyForWldfire.org.
'One less spark'
Wildland residents and visitors are warned to take steps to prevent wildfires by remembering that "One Less Spark means One Less Wildfire."