John Zarrella: Florida wildfire threat
Q: Do officials fear that the fire season may be starting early in Florida?
Zarrella: There is no question that the fire season is underway. Already in the first five or six weeks of the New Year, there have been more than 900 wildfires in the state. That number is three to four times the average. Clearly, the worst of the fire season is still a few months away, but early indications are that we are building up rapidly to a very serious fire season.
Q: When does fire season usually start?
Zarrella: If we weren’t in the circumstances we are in right now, you would see fire season start in April or May then move into the hot very summer months. What has happened can be summed up in a single word: drought.
Q: How much of a rain deficit does Florida have at this point?
Zarrella: It really depends on which part of Florida you are talking about because the situation is different throughout the state. In central Florida and along the west coast in places like the Tampa area, the deficit is some 20 inches. Contrast that with many parts of south Florida where the deficit right now is only a few inches.
There are tinderbox conditions in north and central Florida. The west coast, where we have basically been in a drought for three years, is also dealing with similar conditions. South Florida has seen a lot of tropical rainfall, but none made it north. This means that neither Lake Okeechobee nor the river basins north of that have been replenished.
All of those areas are the primary watershed for the state, even for south Florida. This has led to the drought conditions and mandatory water restrictions going into place in nearly every county south of Orlando all the way to the Keys.
Q: Which areas face the biggest wildfire threat?
Zarrella: A couple of key areas face the biggest threat: southwest Florida, which historically sees lots of wildfires, and the I-95 corridor up around the St. Augestine- Daytona Beach area. In 1998, this area was devastated by the worst wildfires in the state’s history, forcing the closure of I-95. However, because of that fire, much of the undergrowth and the thick pine trees were burned out. There may be little brush left to burn.
One real critical area that firefighters and forestry officials are watching closely is the I-4 corridor between Orlando and Tampa. Consider this: there is a drought index which goes from 0 to 800, the latter number denoting desert. Along the 1-4 corridor, there are places there that register on that index at more than 600. That is how bad it is. All of that dead and dry material is just the worst possible thing you can have this time of year because it is the perfect fuel
Q: Are any densely populated areas facing wildfire threats?
Zarrella: The south Florida area is so developed that most of the wildfires are contained west of the suburbs in the places like the middle of the Everglades for example. Most of the urban areas, the heavily populated urban areas in the state appear to be safe from wildfires. But there are less populated areas, small communities that dot the east and west coast. Some of these communities, such as retirement communities and housing developments, sit in the middle of a sprawling pine forest. Those places may not be as safe, which is what happened in 1998 when homes were destroyed in a lot of smaller, more rural areas, or areas where new development had gone in but were still surrounded by a great degree of pine forest and the natural vegetation.
Q: What precautions is the state recommending?
Zarrella There are things that individuals can do to lessen the risk that wildfire will impact them. There are places you can go to find materials to read that tell you as a home owner the kinds of plants you can place around your house that don't burn easily and what NOT to use as groundcover. You can even go on the web to find information about what you should do to protect your home from a wildfire.
The state is also saying that it is better prepared than it was in 1998. Many lessons were learned. They pre-positioned equipment in areas where fires are breaking out already. The state has spent money to upgrade the amount of equipment such as helicopters to pull water up. There are arson teams that the state has assembled that work with local law enforcement simply because many of these fires are arson related. It is the ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure approach. The state Division of Forestry is trying to be proactive in all of these respects so that when we do get to the heart of fire season, it may be able to mitigate some of the potential loses.
A formula for Florida wildfires
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