CLAYTON -- Parched hillsides, a dwindling supply of fresh water and summerlike temperatures have many worried. But for California firefighters, the drought means one thing: a very long and potentially lethal fire season.

Typically, fire season starts in June, but the Bay Area this year saw its first warning about potential high fire danger in January, about the time a Southern California blaze forced thousands of residents to flee, destroyed five homes and burned almost 2,000 acres of land.

"That's something that has never ever happened in all of my career," said Avery Webb, deputy chief of the Berkeley Fire Department, who has been a firefighter for more than 20 years.

Firefighters Chris de Melo, left, and Greg Leonard, right, along with engineer Patrick Murphy hike back to their vehicle after collecting chamise clippings
Firefighters Chris de Melo, left, and Greg Leonard, right, along with engineer Patrick Murphy hike back to their vehicle after collecting chamise clippings in the Clayton Ranch area in Clayton, Calif., on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014. (Susan Tripp Pollard/Bay Area News Group)

There have been some 750 wildfires this year, burning more than 4,000 acres up and down the state. That compares with just over 200 fires during the same time last year.

As a result, Cal Fire, the state fire protection agency, and the U.S. Department of Forestry are keeping a close eye on brush moisture levels, hiring seasonal firefighters and conducting public awareness campaigns months ahead of the usual push.

"The recent rain is a great thing, but there hasn't been enough of it to put a severe dent in the drastic drought that we've had," said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for CalFire, which oversees more than 31 million acres of wildland throughout the state.


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The agency said in February that it plans to hire an additional 125 firefighters and put in extra aerial support at five California bases. It also launched radio and online spots -- two months earlier than usual -- to educate homeowners about removing dry leaves, shrubs and low branches around their properties, a practice known as "creating defensible space," to prevent fires from spreading by climbing from the ground to homes and trees.

"We're trying to get people to understand the severity of the situation and to be extremely careful when camping, smoking or doing anything else outdoors," Berlant said.

California's precipitation levels are still less than half of normal, said John Snook, a scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, which manages 21 million acres of the state's forest. In the Southern Sierras and the Central Coast Range, precipitation levels are less than 25 percent of the norm, leaving large areas highly susceptible to a major fire.

"There is a significant portion of the mountain range that doesn't have snow cover at 4,500 feet and higher of elevation," Snook said, noting that the Forest Service predicts active fire season for upcountry areas to start by May -- three to five weeks early.

Firefighters from the Sunshine Fire Station travel through the Clayton Ranch area after collecting samples of the chamise that grows in the area in
Firefighters from the Sunshine Fire Station travel through the Clayton Ranch area after collecting samples of the chamise that grows in the area in Clayton, Calif., on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014. (Susan Tripp Pollard/Bay Area News Group)

Crews are also studying vegetation and moisture levels to better prepare for the season. Firefighters at the CalFire substation in Clayton recently hiked into East Bay Regional Park District land to collect samples of chamise, a shrub found throughout California's chapparal zones.

At a distance stood Mount Diablo, where last September a fire sparked by a target shooter forced residents and livestock to evacuate homes and rangeland and charred more than 3,000 acres.

After clipping a plant, firefighters dry it in an oven and weigh it to calculate the fuel moisture content. The levels for February looked ominous: 63 percent, something more typical for September or October.

In the South Bay, San Jose State students took similar measurements in the Sierra Azul Open Space in Los Gatos for the school's Fire Weather Research Lab. Their data are plugged into the National Fuel Moisture Database, which firefighters use to track conditions and plan fire responses.

"Understanding the fuel moisture helps us understand how dangerous the fire will be," said Dianne Hill, a volunteer firefighter with Casa Loma Volunteer Fire Association and a graduate student at SJSU's meteorology department. "Sixty percent moisture is a critical level, meaning the plant will catch fire if there is any source of ignition near it, like a campfire or a grass fire."

Their January and February moisture measurements hovered around 60. A week of rain just before the early March measurement boosted that to 70, but that's still far lower than the 140 the area registered at the same time last year.

While the most recent rains are welcome, there has not been enough to soak trees and other larger vegetation. The rains have also resulted in fast growth for grass, which can act as kindling in a wildfire.

"After the spring rains, everything just pops up, and while the hills look pretty, it makes our work much more complicated," CalFire Battalion Chief Mark Marcucci said. "We really want to make sure people don't fall into a sense of complacency because of a bit of rain. You still have to use common sense: If it's sunny and breezy, don't go out and mow your lawn."

That's part of a bigger message from Bay Area officials to ensure residents do what they can to prevent fires or damage on their own property.

Many people recall the Oakland hills firestorm of 1991, which started with a grass fire that wasn't completely extinguished. The most lethal fire in California's recent history, it destroyed nearly 3,000 homes and killed 25 people, including more than 10 residents who became trapped in their cars as they tried to flee the flames.

Since then, more area residents have been proactive about fire prevention, organizing weed-whacking parties, using goats to remove dead vegetation from steep hillsides and creating defensible firebreaks to slow quickly moving blazes.

"Homeowners can't just count on the fire department," said Bob Sieben, a member of the Diablo Firesafe Council of Alameda and Contra Costa counties, one of more than 100 volunteer groups run by the California Fire Safe Council.

"Fires will occur, but there is a lot we can do to prepare in advance," Sieben said.

Contact Karina Ioffee at 650-576-9626. Follow her at Twitter.com/kioffee.