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SACRAMENTO - Cal Fire, the largest firefighting agency in the world, is cautioning that without enough winter rain and snow anintense, dangerous fire season could startas early asApril.

"In my 27 years of doing this, I've never seen, this far north, fires continue to occur through the winter," said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Fred Lopez at his stationalong Cook Riolo Road inwestern Placer County.

"It's January and we're still getting small vegetation fires," he said, referring to fires started by people pouring out ashes from their fireplaces, thinking winter damp would put them out.

In Big Sur on the California coast, flames burned homes and property in an unusual late-season fire in mid-December.

"The coast has received it's driest year on record," Lopez said, adding, "put a little wind behind it, one ignition and that brush is still burning and it's January."

The problem in the spring, Lopez said, is that without enough precipitation, heavier fuels that burn longer and hotter, will become dangerously dry.

"Those trees are not going to be able to suck up that moisture next spring and so that translates into an early fire season, a long fire season."

Homeowner Ken Zanolini ofAntelope said he's already thinking ahead to next summer.

"We definitely want to have the fire away from the house if there is a fire out here," Zanolini said.

Last summer, a fire raged to within 150 feet ofhis home along North Watt Avenue.

"We were worried about losing our house because that was right across the street here," he said, gesturing across Watt Avenue to a field where the grass and brush have already grown back.

"What worries me is the people that own some of the properties that don't take care of them like where they had the fire there last year," Zanolini worries.

Lopez said homeowners should begin to prepare extra defensible space starting now.

"Winter is the time for people to cut that brush and get rid of it. We could see brush fires kick off as early as April."

Zanolini is putting in a strip of gravel next to part of his home and said he's not planning to add any more vegetation that could dry out and burn.

As for the brush inside his property line: "We'll keep it down to the dirt."

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