"We are several months ahead of schedule," said Berlant. Normally, additional hiring starts in mid-May or even early in June, he said.

Between Jan. 1 and March 22, the state firefighting agency responded to more than 800 wildland blazes. In an average year, it responds to fewer than 275 over the same period.

"Even with rain in March, our fire activity has remained 200 percent over the average statewide," Chief Ken Pimlott, CalFire's director, said in a statement.

One key signal of the dangerous year to come flared Jan. 24 on the North Coast, Berlant said.

"The most telling fire this year statewide was a fire that burned 330 acres in Humboldt County," he said, referring to the so-called Red Fire that broke out just south of Berry Summit.

"Humboldt gets the most rainfall in Northern California along the coast. That is really telling," Berlant said.

In another measure of the unusual times, the Santa Rosa Cal Fire station closed Dec. 21 and opened Jan. 17, closing later and opening much earlier than normal. Blankenship said most years it opens in May.

Six Cal Fire staff members also have been hired to consult with property owners about creating defensible space around their homes or businesses.

Berlant said paying attention to that fire-preparation tactic is crucial this year, as is not using power tools with metal blades to cut dry grass.

"As we ramp up for fire season, it's really important that residents do their part," he said.

Still, recent rains and those predicted for this week may help tamp the danger for a time, officials said.

"It's really good that it's raining, but I don't think we're going to be able to overcome the deficit," said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Marshall Turbeville. "But it's good that it's prolonging the spring and delaying the onset of the heat of summer and the drying out of the wildland fuels."

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.