Fire season is off to an early start on the North Coast this year following a dry winter and windy spring that left the region's hills and forests vulnerable to wildfires.
Strong, gusty winds coupled with low humidity and warm temperatures stoked several fires Wednesday along the Sonoma-Napa county line, including a fire that destroyed a home and ripped through at least 125 acres in the Knights Valley.
As crews battled the unseasonably early fires, about 50 new Cal Fire recruits began training this week to join the Sonoma-Lake-Napa unit. In Mendocino County, about a dozen new hires will start mid-May, Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.
The agency is hiring firefighters two to three weeks early this year, compared to years with normal amounts of rain.
"The fuels are already dried out. Conditions are primed for wildfires," said Julie Cooley, spokeswoman for Cal Fire in Mendocino.
Cal Fire defines the start of fire season as the moment when it is fully staffed and poised for the dry months. This year, it is preparing early as fires have already begun to spark across the state.
Firefighters have battled more than 680 wildfires across California since Jan. 1, about 200 more than an average year.
Several large wildfires have ripped through Southern California, where Cal Fire has already staffed seasonal crews and readied air tankers.
National forecasters described drought conditions across the western and southwestern United States, with precipitation 25 percent of normal.
A summer wildfire forecast by the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise warned of significant fire potential after the "the driest first four months (of the year) in over 50 years."
The report, released Wednesday, warned that fire season may arrive a month early in California.
Since January, only 3.83 inches of rain have fallen in Sonoma County — the smallest amount of rain for that time period over the last 72 years, according to Press Democrat records.
In Mendocino County, only 5.13 inches have been recorded at a Ukiah rain gauge since the start of the year, about a quarter of the average rainfall, according to the National Weather Service.
Lake County has had 3.9 inches of rain during the same time period, far below normal of 15.99 inches in Lakeport, Sacramento-based meteorologist Stefanie Henry said.
Cal Fire opted to bring seasonal firefighters in early after local units began testing the water content of vegetation.
"The grass, brush and even timber is incredibly dry. There isn't much moisture in live plants. We just didn't get those winter rains," Berlant said.
The amount of water in the state's snowpack is also dismally low.
In the Sierra, the water content of the snowpack is 52 percent lower than average this year, according to a Department of Water Sources analysis in March, when the snowpack is typically greatest. California's snowpack provides about one third of the state's water.
Green grass may still be covering many North Coast hills, but local firefighters don't expect that to last long.
"I think it will really start to change color in a couple of weeks, especially if the wind keeps up," Rancho Adobe Battalion Chief Andy Taylor said.
The first significant fire on the North Coast sparked on Jan. 22. A controlled burn got out of hand on Mount Konocti in the Kelseyville area of Lake County. The fire moved quickly through thick brush, eventually burning 296 acres before firefighters stopped the blaze.