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Originally published Wednesday, May 1, 2013 at 12:37 PM

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Dry winter, warming trend foretell wildfire danger

A pair of small but unseasonably early fires burning in California's wine country likely is a harbinger of a nasty summer fire season across the West.

Associated Press

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BOISE, Idaho —

A pair of small but unseasonably early fires burning in California's wine country likely is a harbinger of a nasty summer fire season across the West.

Officials with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise said Wednesday in its first 2013 summer fire outlook that a dry winter and predicted warming trend mean the potential for significant fire activity will be above normal in the West Coast states, the Southwest, and portions of Idaho and Montana.

Ed Delgado, manager of the center's predictive services unit, says fire season in Southwest states like Arizona and New Mexico likely will start soon and quickly escalate, at least until the July monsoon season.

"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," Delgado says.

Outside the West, however, much of the rest of the country 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.

The culprit behind a California fire season that's a month ahead of schedule? A winter where only 40 percent of normal precipitation fell.

"In Southern California significant wildland fire potential will elevate to above normal in May and June across the inland valleys, mountains and foothills. For July and August this area will expand to include the coastal areas," according to Wednesday's report.

In Arizona, a nearly-square mile wildfire near the Chino Valley had state forestry officials busy on 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.

That's after New Mexico saw record wildfires in 2012, including some stretching into December.

In Northwestern states, cool temperatures and rain in April mean May will be mostly quiet. That could change quickly.

"Warmer and drier conditions beginning in June will quickly elevate significant wildland fire potential to above normal across southern and eastern Oregon and portions of south central and southeastern Washington," the fire center said.

And in the Northern Rockies including Idaho and Montana, fire danger is forecast at near normal through May and June, before escalating in July and August to above-normal potential.

Idaho is also coming off one of its worst-ever fire seasons in 2012, with 1,151 wildfires tallied and a nation-leading 1.7 million acres, or 2,600 square miles, burned.

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