Thursday, May 3, 2007 | San Diego County’s hillsides have donned their spring coats. Green vegetation carpets mountains from Tecate Peak to Laguna Meadow. Yellow wildflowers cascade down hillsides.

But beneath the bucolic exterior, fire ecologists, forecasters and firefighters say the county is facing one of its driest years on record. Rainfalls are below average. Plants are thirsty. Vegetation that died during last winter’s freeze is lying dormant and dry, a tinderbox of fuel for the region’s wildfires.

Officially, San Diego’s fire season started Monday. But local fire departments galvanized early in preparation for a particularly intense fire season. Fire department outreach teams are going into overdrive to inform and warn citizens about the potential hazards of wildfires, and the state has moved aerial firefighting resources into the county a month earlier than normal.

“It’s just about as dry as it has been since they’ve been keeping records,” said Bill Metcalf, fire chief for the North County Fire Protection District in Fallbrook.

As the local coordinator for the California Fire System, Metcalf is also the point man for local and state firefighters during large wildfires like the 2003 Cedar Fire, which claimed 15 lives and burned more than 700,000 acres. He said the county’s moisture this spring has dropped to “late summer” levels.

If it ended today, this year’s rainfall — measured from July 1, 2006 to June 30, 2007 — would be the fourth lowest since 1850. Lindbergh Field has only recorded 3.85 inches of rain in that time, said Stan Wasowski, a National Weather Service forecaster.

“We’ve had back-to-back fairly dry years, not even getting 50 percent of rainfall,” Wasowski said. “It’s getting to be fairly critical.”

Across San Diego County, living and dead vegetation is drier and more likely to burn. Plants contain, on average, about 60 percent of the moisture they typically do, said Richard Halsey, director of the California Chaparral Institute in Escondido.

“It’s a little scary because when you’ve got plant material out there with a lower moisture level, it will take a lot less heat for it to ignite,” Halsey said. “That’s the whole issue. Things are going to ignite a lot quicker.”

Whether a major fire occurs will depend on the severity of Santa Ana wind conditions, Halsey said. The strong, hot winds that blow into San Diego from the desert are often the biggest factor in spreading large wildfires. “There’s no stopping those.”

San Diego Fire-Rescue Department officials are urging homeowners to cut back the vegetation around their homes, especially the large numbers of dead ornamental plants that were killed by frost during a record cold spell last winter.

Of particular concern to firefighters are San Diego’s 900 linear miles of vegetation-stocked canyons that crisscross many of the city’s residential neighborhoods like organic gas mains just waiting to be ignited. Fire department officials said they are concentrating on spreading awareness about these fire-hungry canyons, and will hold a press conference above a suburban canyon on Thursday aimed at addressing their concerns for the months ahead.

“This has the potential to be a very, very difficult fire season,” said Brian Fennessy, an SDFD battalion chief and director of air operations for the department.

Fennessy said his staff has been working a year-long fire season this year — fire season used to simply stretch from May to November. His unit responded to vegetation fires and dropped water on blazes throughout the winter, Fennessy said, which is highly unusual.

“I’ve been a firefighter for 31 years, 14 of those with the U.S. Forest Service, so I’ve been fighting vegetation fires and wildlife fires for a long time, and I’ve never seen it like this,” Fennessy said.

Metcalf said state wildland firefighting teams, which are staffed on a seasonal basis, have brought their personnel into San Diego early this year. Other state resources, including air tankers that are used to drop large dumps of water on fires, have also been deployed a month in advance, he said. Those tankers are based in Ramona and Hemet.

Jeff Carle, deputy director of operations at the San Diego Fire Department, said the department is much better equipped these days to handle a Cedar Fire-like wildfire — a “perfect storm” of strong hot winds, dry vegetation and human negligence. He cited increased training, better communications equipment and the round-the-clock helicopter service that was introduced in February as evidence that the department has made significant changes.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes. I’ve seen a lot of things grow and a lot of things go on,” Carle said. “This county has always been more organized and more prepared than a lot of the places I’ve heard about and a lot of the places I’ve seen.”

That assessment jarred with former San Diego Police Chief Jeff Bowman, who resigned from the department last summer in a flurry of publicity and is now interim fire chief at the Oceanside Police Department.

Bowman said he suggested many different changes during his tenure in San Diego. Those changes were codified in a number of critical reports that he presented to the city before he left office. He said he doubts any of those recommendations have been put into effect.

“I doubt that much of any significance has been done (at the department) since I left,” he said.

Please contact Will Carless or Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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