The signs of danger came early.

In mid-March, when Mother Lode temperatures soared into the 80s, fire warnings were issued. With a week of winter still remaining, Tuolumne and Calaveras county residents were cautioned over escaping debris burns and told to begin clearing brush, limbs and high grass within 100 feet of their homes.

Conditions have not improved since: The last significant rain was in April and the last measurable precipitation, about two-tenths of an inch in Sonora, came on May 7 nearly a month ago. Seasonal rainfall in most foothill and mountain locations is about half normal and is unlikely to increase before fall.

Amid warnings that it could be among the most volatile in California history, fire season was declared in mid-May and, effective today, burning is banned altogether. Crews have been busy all along.

Among calls: A truck with a faulty catalytic converter ignited more than a dozen small fires in the Valley Springs and Mokelumne Hill areas on May 15 and 16. A front-deck clothes dryer on May 29 sparked a fire that destroyed a Jamestown home and spread to nearby brush. A few minutes later, bombers from the Columbia Air Attack Base helped douse a Highway 108 grass fire at the southern edge of Sonora.

These fires and several more all broke out before June arrived.

History shows that conditions will get worse a lot worse before fire season ends in October. It will grow hotter, drier and more dangerous for the next four months.

Firefighters who are likely to travel throughout the state to combat blazes this season are already on high alert. And the rest of us should be.

The time for caution and care is now. Things you wouldn't think twice about doing two months ago mowing the lawn, parking on a meadow or cutting wood can have potentially disastrous consequences.

Consider the case of Charles Prater, a retired firefighter who in August of 2004 was using a metal grinder on his Circle XX subdivision property. Sparks from the power tool ignited the 600-acre Hunt Fire, and now the state is suing to recover $1.8 million in suppression costs.

Given the fact that Prater had already paid a fine, spent two years on probation and had been promised by local California Department of Forestry official that no further restitution would be sought, the state's suit

is questionable. But beyond question is the danger actions like Prater's, although accidental, pose.

How dangerous can conditions get? In 1999, sparks from a titanium golf club ignited a grass fire that blackened five acres of rough at Mountain Springs, a Sonora-area golf course. And in 1996, a flung horseshoe hit a rock, sparking a 146-acre fire off La Grange Road.

So a new Cal Fire press release proclaiming that "Fire Season is in your hands" couldn't be more timely. It points out that 98 percent of all fires are caused by humans and warns against careless use of power equipment, driving or parking on dry grass, operating an off-road vehicle without a spark arrestor, illegal campfires and mowing in dry, overgrown areas.

"Instead of accepting the devastation a fire can cause," the agency advises, "stop one before it begins."

Another key element of Cal Fire's prevention campaign is encouraging property owners to clear the legally required 100 feet of defensible space around their homes, a vital move if firefighters are to have any chance at saving them.

But, foreseeing just the kind of weather the Mother Lode is experiencing now, fire officials had strongly suggested that weed trimming, brush removal and pruning be done in March or April.

No, it's not too late to do this important work. But homeowners are encouraged to do it with care and caution, so as not to create the very hazard they are trying to guard against.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board Publisher Geoff White, Managing Editor Patty Fuller and senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.