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The parched, brown landscape offers visceral proof of what the numbers don't fully convey: The North Coast is nearly 13 months into the driest stretch of weather in 83 years of record-keeping.

A winter gone awry has altered the landscape like no other season in memory, shaking our confidence that all will be well as it entices us with a string of abnormally warm, dry days.

A poet envisions the Earth as "an old, neglected woman" and imagines we could fall into its bone-dry cracks.

A plein air painter says the grassy hills of Sonoma County have shed their gold summer mantle for a "dead gray" hue.

In the coastal hills, where soggy winter winds usually drop sheets of rain, a sign at the Cazadero Community Church says: "We are still praying for rain."

Amid the angst of reservoirs, rivers and wells running dry and of catastrophic wildfires erupting, sun-loving Californians are stealing guilty pleasures of summer like chocolates from a box that should not be open.

A man sips beer on a sun-splashed restaurant patio on Fourth Street in Santa Rosa while the digital thermometer on the U.S. Bank <NO1><NO>building reads 73, another January record. Four guys ride through town in a big yellow convertible, top-down.

Officially, Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a statewide drought emergency and the Sonoma County Water Agency, which delivers Russian River water to 600,000 North Bay customers, launched its first wintertime conservation campaign with the theme, "The Drought is On; Turn the Water Off."

Through Monday, Santa Rosa had less than one-tenth of an inch of rain in January, on track for a record and paired with a daytime high temperature averaging 68.4 degrees, nearly 11 degrees above normal for the month.

The Sierra snowpack is 12 percent of normal, red flag fire warnings have been posted and dust storms are blowing in the San Joaquin Valley.

Anxiety over the future taints our summer-like frivolity.

Katherine Hastings of Santa Rosa, Sonoma County's poet laureate, reflected that her works refer to spring as "a time of rebirth," with images of an "emerald flow" and a "green sea of grass."

"How will we write about <CF102>this</CF> spring?" Hastings asked. "Will the green come?"

Valley of the Moon should look like Ireland, "as green as can be," said Daymon Doss, a Kenwood health care consultant who drove to Santa Rosa in shirtsleeves last week.

"This is not right. Something's wrong here," he said. "It's unlike anything we recall."

Tony King of Freestone, who's painted the Sonoma County landscape for 40 years and in all four seasons, said nature's palette is largely missing green. "It's certainly a different visual sensation," he said.

Walking in the woods should bring the smell of wet, decaying vegetation, King said, but now there's "just a crunching of dry twigs and needles."

Cloudless blue skies can be tiresome to an artist, he noted. "There is cobalt blue and ultramarine: how many ways can you mix them?" King asked.

Cazadero, the rain capital of Sonoma County, had a season total of 4.08 inches of rain on Tuesday, compared with 48.82 inches at this time last year.

The rural community in the coastal hills is best known for occasional seasons of 100 inches, enough to qualify as a rain forest.

"It's too nice," said Don Berry, a Cazadero native whose great-grandfather bought the town in the 1880s. "It feels like someone made a mistake."

A recent Sunday hit 79 degrees and with humidity as low as 12 percent, people living among the tall trees are wary of fire, said Berry, a Cazadero volunteer firefighter.

"If the vegetation catches on fire, we're done," he said. "It's gonna take off."

Charlotte Berry, who runs Cazadero Supply with her husband, said locals are accustomed to rain every day in January instead of the recent stretch of warm days and below-freezing nights.

"I feel guilty that I'm enjoying this beautiful weather," Berry said, while longing for a warm pineapple express rainstorm pounding the roofs.

Walking his dog along Channel Drive next to tinder-dry Annadel State Park, Oakmont resident Don Read said he's worried by memories of the Bel Air Fire, which charred 16,000 acres in Los Angeles in 1961.

"There's nothing worse in the western states than drought and we're into one," he said.

Read's advice to his fellow Oakmont residents: Get rid of your lawns. "They've got sprinklers going all the time," he said.

Neill Fogarty, supervising ranger at Annadel, said it's odd to be driving dusty fire roads in the park. "It's eerily beautiful," he said, but there's an immediate downside.

Annadel's popular trails usually get a break in the winter, Fogarty said but the drought is bringing in uninterrupted crowds of hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders.

Hastings' drought-inspired poem ended: "I look out the window now and see dust. I think 'food,' 'fire,' 'rain dance!'<TH>"

With California expected to remain unseasonably dry through the spring, Don Berry put it a little more bluntly.

"We're gonna pay the price for this," he said.

Staff Researcher Janet Balicki contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.