Blame the freeze. Blame the record dry spell. Whatever the cause, hills covered with tinder-dry brush could easily go up in smoke unless they see some rain – soon. Laurel sumac, a bushy green shrub highly susceptible to frost, fell victim to this winter’s cold snap and now covers portions of the Malibu Hills with a brittle brown blanket. “If we don’t get some rain in March, it’s definitely a concern,” said county Assistant Chief Frank Vidales, head of the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Forestry Division. With a succession of Santa Anas a recent memory, Los Angeles now vies with Death Valley as the most desiccated spot in North America. “We’re on track for the driest (year) ever,” he said. “We don’t see anything on the horizon for the next seven to 10 days. The end of March we see some storm potential, but not enough to make a difference.” The dry Santa Anas that pushed temperatures into the 80s and broke records throughout Los Angeles last week may return Saturday, he said. This bodes poorly for even drought-resistant native plants. Fuel moisture levels in Saugus-Castaic now average 68 percent – 8 percent above critical levels. In the fire-prone Malibu Hills, plant moisture averages just 75 percent. Shown a sample of the crackly brown leaves that splotch canyons from Calabasas to Malibu, Malibu Creek State Park officials immediately pegged it as laurel sumac. The relative of poison oak that resembles bay laurel grows up to 15 feet with roots down to 40 feet. Resistent to fire, laurel sumac was also extremely vulnerable to the frost that wiped out more than $1 billion in California crops in January. “That’s going to provide extra fuel if we have a fire this year,” said Suzanne Goode, senior environmental scientist at the park. The 68,000-acre Angeles National Forest, which has received more moisture at higher altitudes, has reported high fire danger since last summer. Because of high-fire conditions, forest officials recently cancelled a prescribed burn near La Ca ada Flintridge and increased the hours of federal firefighters. “The next few weeks are pretty important,” said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Stanton Florea. “We would like to get some more rain.” But while it rains in Washington state, freezes in New York and threatens bumpy weather in Florida, the Southwest may be in for a prolonged dry spell, according to national forecasters. This week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced a La Ni a cold current emerging in the Pacific that could banish Southland rain. Between 1987 and 1992, a La Ni a-inspired drought forced Southern California water agencies to first impose water rationing. “La Ni a is the demon diva of drought,” said Patzert, “and she’s peeking over the horizon.” [email protected] dailynews.com (818) 713-3730160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! Since July 1, downtown L.A. has seen just 2.42 inches of rain – 9 inches less than normal. February, the normal month of downpours, got less than an inch. The last time Southern California was this parched was during the 1923-24 season, when 2.5 inches of rain fell through March 22. And with the rainy season expected to end in weeks, L.A. could easily match the Mojave hot spot’s 2.5 inches of moisture. “The bottom line: We’re knocking on the door of the record,” said Bill Patzert, climatologist for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Ca ada Flintridge. Eric Boldt, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Oxnard, agreed.