With parts of California emerging from one of the driest winters in more than a century, the fire devouring Lake Tahoe's south shore might be a harbinger of what's in store for the western United States during the long, hot summer ahead.
Rainfall in Southern California has dwindled to near record lows this year, while the little moisture Northern California received already is giving way to dry forests and brittle, golden grasses.
The tinderbox conditions are obvious on National Weather Services maps, where a red stain indicating a severe, persisting drought covers California, Nevada, Utah and much of the West. The arid weather and vegetation combination is so explosive that a golfer recently lit a fire near Reno, Nev., with the friction between his club and the ball.
"The picture for fire is pretty bad," said National Weather Service hydrologist Gary Barbato. "You have all this dried up stuff out there and any little spark can cause a disaster."
Except for a few sections of the green, hilly Central Coast, almost the entire state is at risk of erupting in flames, said Matt Mathes, U.S. Forest Service spokesman. Only the weather conditions — wind speed, heat — and the availability of fuel — natural and manmade — will determine which fires will be the most disastrous, he said.
Much of southern and central California, where residential development has spread into forested foothills, has the same geography and vegetation as the Lake Tahoe Basin, and is reacting to drought in the same way: brush that grew dense during the last few wet winters sits, bone dry, on soil holding little moisture.
'Potentially extreme fire season'
"We are anticipating a potentially extreme fire season," said Mathes. "Lake Tahoe basin is probably an extreme example, but very similar conditions exist throughout the Sierra Nevada. It can happen literally anywhere at any moment."
Even coastal Southern California, greener than the inland Mojave Desert, has experienced unusually parched conditions in the last 12 months. Los Angeles received only 3 1/2 inches of rain within the last year — the lowest precipitation in more than 100 years, said Douglas LeConte, a drought specialist with the National Weather Services Climate Prediction Center.
Previous winters left enough snowmelt to fill reservoirs and recharge groundwater, so there is no shortage of water for cities and farm fields yet, according to the Department of Water Resources. But the wet years also left dense thickets of vegetation that died during the dry months, providing ample fuel for a spreading fire.
The 22 parks and recreation areas overseen by the National Park Service in California have been training employees and removing flammable materials all winter, said regional spokeswoman Holly Bundock.
"We had early fires this year" northwest of Los Angeles, Bundock said. "It was sort of a wake-up call."
The dry spell prompted the federal Bureau of Land Management to impose early restrictions on fires, off-road driving and shooting of firearms in the 15.2 million acres of public land it oversees in California.
Trying to be 'more nimble'
The increased risks led the U.S. Forest Service to give fire crews more flexibility so they can be positioned in areas where fires are expected, and free up their elite 20-member "hotshot" crews, smoke jumpers, fire engines and helicopters to move around as needed.
"We're just going to be more nimble," Mathes said.
The flexibility proved useful during a May thunderstorm, when crews from Southern California were moved to the northern reaches of the state to put out 70 to 80 spot fires triggered by hundreds of lightning strikes.
Yet Mathes stressed that the best firefighting tool are residents, who can contribute by cutting trees and brush from around homes, removing firewood and other fuel, and even sweeping away cobwebs that can catch flying embers, Mathes said.
In Tahoe, locals who are still grappling with one of the worst fires they've seen in decades live in fear that a similar disaster could come again any day.
"I've been here for 13 years and every year it's gotten worse," said Jeff Volimas, 47, one of the last civilians to make it off Mt. Rainier Drive on June 24 before fire destroyed almost every home on the street. "If you put on sunglasses and really look, there's a lot of brown in there, a lot of dead, dying and dry trees that need to come down, and we've still got the rest of the summer."
Kit Bailey, U.S. Forest Service chief for the Lake Tahoe basin, also said the region could suffer even more this fire season.
"It's going to get worse before it gets better," Bailey said.