Fire danger reaching peak across state
WESLEY CHAPEL -
In addition to the sunshine, beaches and mild winters, Florida has something else to offer virtually year-round: fire season.
“There's a constant fire season in Florida,” said Kawika Bailey, Pasco/West Hernando Forest area supervisor for the Florida Forest Service. “Even when there's rain, you'll still have some smaller fires in the sand hill areas, areas where it's sandy and it dries up quickly.”
The season reaches its peak between March and June.
Areas from Manatee County north to Levy County are now designated as being in a state of high “observed fire danger” by the Florida Forest Service.
More than 370 acres in Pasco County have been scorched this year, and that's just 13 calls in which the Florida Forest Service has been brought in to assist. Bailey said that count is higher when you add the number of calls handled by Pasco County Fire Rescue.
At least 1,200 acres this year have burned in Pasco and Hernando counties because of wildfires. Again, those numbers rise when considering that each county's fire rescue handles smaller fires.
A 22-acre fire began Monday in the northeast reaches of Pasco County, temporarily closing a portion of State Road 471 near Dade City. Members of the forest service as well as Pasco County Fire Rescue have the fire contained, Bailey said. The biggest job now is smoke mitigation, keeping the smolder from obscuring nearby roads and away from homes.
Although the investigation of the blaze isn't complete, Bailey said the fire was manmade and not due to lightning.
Traditionally, winter months are drier in comparison to the rest of the year. But below-normal rains and the see-saw nature of the temperature this winter and spring has added to the fire danger.
Since October, readings from a rainfall gauge in St. Leo have recorded 13.24 inches of precipitation. That amount should be 18.44 inches, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Paul Close.
“This is typical of this time of year,” Close said. “We've had some freezes, so that has killed a lot of plants. Now it's warm and dry, and there is some potential for fire. It only takes a little spark or something to start a fire.”
On the bright side, wet weather has been forecast for today and Friday. A system moving in from the Gulf of Mexico should linger into Friday and could bring a chance of severe weather, including lightning.
The forest service attempts to prevent wildfires by conducting prescribed burns. Generally, areas with high vegetation or a history of frequent wildfires are subject to those burns. Wooded areas that don't have a “burn history” are also targeted to eliminate fire potential or at least cut the amount of fuel for a fire if one occurs.
Bailey said people who are lighting fires in their backyards, whether to burn trash or for cooking, should use common sense. Doing so on a windy day can cause embers to travel, igniting a fire elsewhere. Water or an extinguisher should also be kept handy.
Across the state, 1,063 wildfires have been reported between Jan. 1 and March 31, according to the Florida Forest Service. Those flames have consumed about 16,295 acres statewide.
Those figures may be alarming, but Bailey says it's the norm for this time of year.
“We're in fire season, so I would say it's at average right now,” he said. “Now, the dry conditions, that's above normal. We have had less rainfall, but the fire season overall, I would say it's average.”