BOISE, Idaho - Two small but unseasonably early fires burning in Northern California's wine country and another wind-whipped blaze farther south likely are a harbinger of a nasty summer fire season across the West.
Officials with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise said Wednesday in their first 2013 summer fire outlook that a dry winter and expected warming trend mean the potential for significant fire activity will be above normal on the West Coast, in the Southwest and portions of Idaho and Montana.
In Arizona, a nearly square mile wildfire near the Chino Valley had state forestry officials busy Tuesday, as the fire rolled through grass and brush. The National Interagency Fire Center says there's likely more to come across the Southwest.
"Above normal significant fire potential will develop across much of the southern halves of New Mexico and Arizona in May," the report concluded.
"We're looking at a combination of a low-moisture winter and a warming and drying pattern in the West that will increase the fire potential," said Ed Delgado, predictive services manager.
If that sounds familiar to the region's residents, it should.
In 2012, record-setting fires raged in New Mexico and Oregon, while destructive Colorado blazes torched hundreds of homes amid one of the state's worst seasons in years.
Just like last year, Colorado experienced some of its first wildfires of 2013 in March.
Outside the West, however, much of the U.S. is expected to experience normal fire conditions, with below-normal danger in the South, where significant, long-duration rains saturated the landscape since Jan. 1, Delgado said.
In California, wine-producing counties Napa and Sonoma experienced early-season blazes Wednesday, as warm temperatures, low humidity and gusting winds through already-dry foothills areas east and north of San Francisco led to warnings of extreme wildfire conditions. Both were more than half-contained, according to crews.
And a fast-moving fire east of Los Angeles grew Wednesday afternoon to at least 1,500 acres near Banning in the San Bernardino Mountains, where winds from the east were blowing at nearly 30 mph. Some evacuations were ordered.
Evacuations were ordered for residences on two streets, but the number of people was not immediately known. A KCAL-TV helicopter showed at least one structure engulfed by flames.
The culprit behind a California fire season that's a month ahead of schedule? A winter where only 40 percent of normal precipitation fell and scant spring rain that typically greens up hillsides and pushes fires back into summer.