Southern California continued to break all the weather rules Friday with an early heat wave that experts said could usher in a premature fire season and makes it less likely that Los Angeles will break the all-time rain record set 121 years ago.
Parts of Southern California will hit the 100-degree mark over the weekend -- unusually hot weather for May, which is known for its cooler gloomy conditions. With the heat will come a variation on the Santa Ana winds that are normally seen later in the summer and early fall.
"Now we're skipping May gray and June gloom," said William Patzert, a meteorologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge. "Everything just seems out of whack here the last 12 months. We're getting what we expected last September and October."
The heat spell comes at the tail end of the second-wettest winter on record in Los Angeles, where a series of storms dumped 37.25 inches of rain. Many meteorologists believed the all-time record of 38.18 inches, set in 1883-84, would finally fall this year. But the city is now .94 inches from the record and is likely to stay there through the end of the season on June 30, Patzert said.
"We would have to have something bizarre, one of those backdoor monsoon seasons where huge thunderstorms over Arizona and New Mexico come through the backdoor from the east," Patzert said. "At this point we're playing with loaded dice and the dice are loaded against us."
The rain has left the hillside brush with more moisture than in the past few years. But the rain has also left more brush, so the fire danger could worsen later this summer.
"We had a lot of rainfall, which gave us tall grass," said Kathy J. Peterson, a spokeswoman for the Angeles National Forest. "They turn into flash fuels."
In San Bernardino County, the hotter, windier conditions helped fan a 75-acre brush fire last week in the community of Helendale.
"That fire spread quickly because of the amount of fuels and the winds," said county Fire Department spokeswoman Tracey Martinez.
"With the rains come the good and the bad," she added. "Out in the desert areas and the valley areas there's a lot more grasses and brush because of the rains. That means a lot more fuels. They're still lush and green because it hasn't been hot enough to dry them out -- yet."
Los Angeles Fire Department officials said they were surprised by how early the temperatures started rising. In cities throughout L.A. County, Orange County and the Inland Empire, temperatures exceeded 90 degrees.
Fire Department spokesman Brian Humphrey said the brush remains moist enough now, but added: "This is the beginning of a steady march toward the zenith of the fire season, which occurs when the Santa Ana winds pick up the last drops of moisture from the hillsides."
Southern California lifeguards have begun to notice the difference in the weather, as crowds increasingly flock to the coast.
Los Angeles County is hiring more seasonal lifeguards as the sun glares and more people head for the beach, said Dave Estey, a county lifeguard at Santa Monica Beach.
"When the sun comes out, it's amazing how fast Los Angeles finds the beach," Estey said. "The ocean temperature is still quite cool. We've got a light breeze coming out of the ocean. It's very pleasant down here."
In Monterey Park on Friday, women with grocery bags carried umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun. Elderly men on afternoon walks wore floppy straw hats.
"I can tell it's going to be real hot," said Pierre Acosta, a lifeguard at the Barnes Park pool in the center of the city. "No way was it this hot the same time last year. I can't sleep at night because it's too hot. All I have is a fan."
The 19-year-old sat under a canopy by the water's edge, trying to avoid getting sunburned.
"As a lifeguard, you wait all year for this," he said.
The sudden heat is as mysterious to meteorologists as the reason for the region's unusually rainy winter. Unlike most heavy rain years, precipitation came early -- in the fall -- and was not caused by El Nino, a weather phenomenon marked by the warming of waters in the Pacific Ocean.
Patzert of JPL said it's hard not to root for just enough rain to break the all-time record. It's still possible, he said. But it's unlikely.
"The emerald appearance of Southern California is already starting to turn brown," Patzert said. "At this point, the odds are definitely against us."
If the record does not fall, he said, this season would still be one to remember. While it caused much damage, it also had benefits.
Reservoirs were filled. Drought conditions were eased. Brush moisture levels provided a respite from tinderbox conditions. Ozone levels were reduced and cleaner air followed. And "the local TV weather guys got to use their Doppler" systems, Patzert added.
However, he compared falling short of the record rainfall to winning the silver medal at the Olympics.
"You know what the silver medal is?" Patzert asked. "The first of the losers."