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Grim fire season opens in Northern California

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POSTED May 11, 2014 6:02 p.m.

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — After months of warning that drought-stricken California is facing a potentially devastating wildfire season, officials are telling residents it’s time to get serious about clearing brush from backyards, creating evacuation plans and exercising caution with equipment that can throw sparks.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire, declared fire season open in the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento areas Monday and planned to extend the designation to the rest of Northern California next week. That is about a month earlier than normal and a reflection of the kindling-like conditions on moisture-deprived hillsides and in forests packed with dead greenery, agency spokesman Daniel Berlant said Saturday.

The official start of the fire season means staffing levels will remain at their peak and firefighting aircraft on standby until the heightened danger subsides, he said.

In Southern California, the fire season is already underway because the agency never ended the one that started in 2013, Berlant said.

State fire officials have been gearing up since January by slowly adding more temporary firefighters in the central and northern parts of California.

State water managers conducted their final survey of the Sierra Nevada snowpack on May 1 and found it was at 18 percent of average for the date. The snowpack accounts for about one-third of the state’s water.

“There is no doubt that the drought has left the grasses and the brush very dry and that has really set the stage for a very busy fire season,” Berlant said.

CalFire crews already have responded to nearly 1,300 wildfires across the state in 2014, more than twice as many as usual for this time of year.

Inspectors have started visiting fire-prone areas to remind property owners to remove branches, weeds and leaves from around their homes, but not to use lawn mowers, trimmers or power tools that could ignite a blaze after 10 a.m.

While the threat of wildfires is expected to remain extreme throughout the summer and fall, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has issued an El Nino watch for next winter. El Nino is a warming of the central Pacific Ocean that can bring heavy rain to California. The state had its last big El Nino storms in the winter of 1997-98.

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