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California Wildfire Worries

The driest conditions in three decades and an early burst of fires have raised fears that this summer's wildfire season in Southern California could be destructive.

Some Golden State counties pushed up the official opening of fire season by a month so they could start hiring firefighters early.

Since Saturday, four fires driven by wind and temperatures near 100 degrees have destroyed about 7,300 acres of brush and come treacherously close to homes.

The 3.4 million acres patrolled by state firefighters in Southern California are drier than at any time since 1976, when record-keeping started, officials said.

"There are places where the wood is as dry as if it had been baked in a kiln," said Karen Terrill, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Southern California's driest areas are in San Diego and Riverside counties, which have gotten less than 4 inches of rain since July 1 in areas that normally receive more than 10 inches. The rainy season in California does not start until late fall.

Downtown Los Angeles has gotten only 4.36 inches of rain since July 1; the driest season on record was 1960-61, with 4.85 inches over the full 12 months.

A wetter winter in Northern California has eased the threat there — at least for now.

"It just takes a couple days of hot, windy conditions and you can have danger," Terrill said.

The dry conditions extend across the Southwest. Arizona and New Mexico had winter snowpacks of just 25 percent of normal. One blaze in New Mexico in March destroyed 28 homes.

"By the end of the year, we'll probably find the Southwest had the worst fire season in the nation," Rick Ochoa, fire weather program coordinator at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

Southern California firefighters compare the danger to 1993, when 26 major fires broke out in Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange, Ventura, San Bernardino and San Diego counties in October and November.

The 1993 blazes killed four people, destroyed more than 1,200 structures and caused $1 billion in damage. In all, nearly 200,000 acres of forest, brush and grass was blackened and thousands of people were left homeless.

This year's rising threat prompted fire officials in Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties to open their official fire seasons this year in mid-April instead of mid-May, the date observed by the rest of the state.

That allowed them to hire 1,500 more firefighters and start 24-hour staffing of stations in some of the most remote areas.

With plants and trees withering and dying, homeowners are getting an early start in protecting their property.

"People are clearing areas around their homes, making them defensible for firefighters," said Charles Wix, a resident of Idyllwild, a town of about 2,500 people in the San Jacinto Mountains near Palm Springs.

By DANNY POLLOCK

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