LOS ANGELES – The forecast looks warm and dry this winter in California and the Southwest, raising the disturbing prospect of a perpetual fire season.

More than 45% of the continental U.S. is experiencing drought, especially in the West. With a La Niña climate pattern expected to persist, the drought may expand and intensify in the southern part of the country this winter, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted.

The official outlook from NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, released Thursday, favors warmer, drier conditions across the Southern tier of the U.S. and cooler, wetter conditions in the north, consistent with an ongoing La Niña.

A La Niña occurs when the sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific are below average. Easterly winds over that region strengthen, and rainfall usually decreases over the central and eastern tropical Pacific and increases over the western Pacific, Indonesia and the Philippines. Forecasters now are expecting a strong La Niña with about an 85% chance of it through the winter.

If this scenario unfolds, it would exacerbate drought conditions in Arizona, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and California, and worsen the wildfire outlook for the rest of 2020 and into 2021.

California is already experiencing its worst fire season on record. Much of Northern California is classified as being in severe or extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor released Thursday. Much of the rest of the state is in moderate drought or is abnormally dry.

To the east, big portions of Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Texas are in extreme or exceptional drought.

The Southwest has been parched since a disappointing monsoon season last year and essentially a no-show this year.

Arizona and California experienced their warmest April-to-September period in 126 years, according to the Drought Monitor. New Mexico and Nevada had their second-warmest such period. Utah and Arizona had their driest six months ever. New Mexico had its second-driest and Colorado had its third-driest.

Southern California counts on water from the Colorado River, so drought in the Four Corners region hits home on the West Coast.