A man looks at approaching flames as the Springs Fire continues to grow on 3 May 2013, near Camarillo, California. The wildfire spread to more than 18,000 acres on day two and was only 20 percent contained Friday evening. Photo: NBC News

By Matthew DeLuca, Staff Writer, NBC News
4 May 2013

(NBC News) – Record-setting temperatures, erratic winds and a parched landscape spell a dangerous fire season for California, experts said on Friday as firefighters fought to control several large blazes of a kind that usually would not raise thick plumes of smoke over the horizon until late fall.

“This is definitely a preview of a long, hot, incendiary summer,” said William Patzert, a climatologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada-Flintridge.

A combination of early, powerful gusts from the inland to the coast, called Santa Ana winds, breathed life into the roaring orange flames that devoured brush and raced down hillsides near Malibu toward the Pacific Ocean on Thursday night. The sea-bound winds pour into the southern part of the state from the northeast and southwest, becoming drier and hotter as they approach the coast, said Stuart Seto, a weather specialist at the National Weather Service in Oxnard, California.

This week, “all the ingredients” came together across parts of California, Patzert said.

The Spring Fire in Ventura County was 56 percent contained, Cal Fire said on its Twitter feed Saturday evening, after jumping to 28,000 acres on Friday, shutting down a portion of the Pacific Coast Highway for a time and drawing nearly 1,900 fire personnel, eight helicopters, and a half-dozen air tankers. The fire damaged at least 15 residences and dozens of other structures, NBCLosAngeles reported, citing fire officials. […]

Many California residents in areas prone to wildfires have known the fear of watching flames lick the borders of their property, but in the past wide-scale destructive fires usually have not struck until summer or fall. A series of 22 major fires across seven Southern California counties destroyed more than 2,200 homes in 2007 – but those fires lasted over three weeks from October to November, according to a report by the Orange County Fire Authority.

The 2009 Station Fire burned over 160,000 acres, destroyed 80 structures, and killed two county firefighters. That fire, the largest in Los Angeles County history, wasn't sparked until late August, according to an after action review. The cost to fully contain the Station Fire topped $95 million, the U.S. Fire Service reported.

“This is certainly one of the earliest fire seasons I remember,” Patzert said.

Firefighters around Camarillo contended with unpredictable Santa Ana winds as flames threatened residences on Thursday and Friday. Such winds drive from inland to the sea, but they usually occur during the fall and winter months.

“We’re having Santa Ana events in May,” Capt. Mike Lindberry of the Ventura County Fire Department said on Thursday. “An event like this … it hasn’t happened in my career.”

Extremely dry conditions for this time of year have also contributed to the growth of the fires, Seto said. The dryness of the vegetation that fueled the flames in the Camarillo area was comparable to what is usually measured in July, he said.

Temperatures hit a record high for the date of 98 degrees in Camarillo on Thursday, Seto said, topping the previous high of 94 degrees in 2004. Normal for this time of May is about 74 degrees, he said.

While parts of the Plains states and upper Midwest saw late-season snowfall earlier this week, officials in California have said that the state's snowpack is lighter than normal. That means the amount of water that flows into state reservoirs over coming months will be less than usual as the snow melts.

“I’m finding nothing,” Frank Gehrke, chief surveyor for the Department of Water Resources, told The Associated Press on Thursday. “Seriously, there is no snow on the course at all.” The water content in California’s high-altitude snow turned out to be only 17 percent of what it usually is, the department reported.  [more]

'Long, hot, incendiary summer': Early wildfires bode ill for California

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