Hot weather and low winter rainfall totals have prompted local authorities to declare the onset of this year’s fire season earlier than usual.

Beginning today, the Santa Barbara County Fire Dept. and the USDA Forest Service will increase the amount of equipment and personnel sent to reported brush fires throughout the county and the Los Padres National Forest.

In addition, extra firefighters and equipment will be placed on call during periods of hot, dry and windy weather.

Patrick Pontes, fire management officer for Los Padres National Forest, said in a press release that the local climate and vegetation types result in a wildfire-susceptible environment year-round.

“We have had very little rainfall this year. Recent high temperatures are really drying the vegetation out quickly,” Pontes said. “While the grass may still be green in some areas, a major wildfire is possible under these conditions.”

According to the fire department, people attempting to clear dry brush from around their homes should be careful when using mechanical equipment. The blades of such equipment can strike rocks or metal objects like fence posts or pipe, causing sparks that could possibly ignite the brush.

The fire department also recommends anyone clearing brush to do so earlier in the morning, before temperature rises and humidity levels decrease.

Last year, 42 fires burned nearly 34,000 acres of the Los Padres National Forest. The Piru Fire, which consumed 32,000 of those acres, was extinguished after charring almost 64,000 acres in October 2003. Smoke from that fire, located in Ventura County, blanketed the skies above the Santa Barbara and Goleta areas for several days.

“Last year’s fires in Southern California are still fresh in our minds,” Pontes said. “We all need to be extremely careful.”