If it feels like its getting hot in Petaluma, that's because it is — in more ways than one.

The 16th annual Great Petaluma Chili Cookoff is fueling the fire for dozens of chili challengers who will descend upon the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds on May 11 to prove that their steaming cauldrons of meat and beans are the best in the land.

"We have 38 teams of chili challengers, salsa challengers and 15 breweries this year," said Chili Empress Laura Sunday. "We're expecting to have a great crowd and a raucous good time."

A fundraiser for Cinnabar Theater's youth programs, the Great Petaluma Chili Cookoff is not just about the chili, it's also about who has the best salsa and beer. There are about 15 breweries from around the county and out of state participating this year, including well known local breweries Dempsey's, Lagunitas and Taps.

The competition categories are meat and vegetarian chilis, which are further dividied into the categories of retaurant/caterers, businesses, service organizations and individuals. The salsa categories are divided into traditional and fruit salsas.

Those attending the cookoff have the opportunity to vote for their favorite chili, salsa and beer — helping that team win a People's Choice Award.

The VIP Judges Awards are given out by a panel of community members who bravely volunteer to blind taste all the chilis and salsas.

Other awards are given out for most spirited team, best chili display, best salsa display, best costumes and best booth.

The cookoff competition is fierce, with several area fire departments battling it out for the Fireman's Ax award, which was won by the Novato Fire Department last year. The Petaluma Fire Department, Santa Rosa Fire Department and Hayward Fire Department are competing this year for the trophy.

"We're very excited to have the Hayward firefighters back again, who always amaze us with their over the top booth," said Sunday. "They've done 'Lord of the Beans,' a full on pirate ship, a Mexican wrestling ring, Renaissance and chain mail. There's no telling what they'll bring this year, but they did ask me how tall is the ceiling above their booth. That's a good sign of something big coming."

In addition to the opportunity to sample chili, salsa and beer, attendees can dance or kick back and listen to music by local bands Stony Point and Captain Paisley.

Tickets for chili and salsa tasting are $25 general, $10 kids under 12 and free for kids under 5. Chili, salsa and beer tasting tickets are $40.

The event is held rain or shine from 1 to 5 p.m. in Behren's Park and in Herzog Hall on the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds.

For details and to purchase tickets in advance, visit www.greatchilicookoff.com. Tickets will also be available at the gate.

(Contact Yovanna Bieberich at yovanna.bieber ich@arguscourier.com)