USA — Whether conducting prescribed burns, thinning out forest underbrush with tools or simply learning new techniques to prepare for battling wildfires, firefighters across Southwest Florida are heading into 2008 making preparations for what they expect to be one of the busiest brush fire seasons on record thanks to the ongoing drought.
At the same time fire officials in Lee and Collier counties are pleading with residents to take precautions to protect their own property and to be proactive to not to cause any fires themselves.
It is very serious this year and it could be as serious as its ever been, said Golden Gate fire spokesman Victor Hill. Theres a lot more conversation about it. We have several new firefighters that have been here less than a year. A lot of them cut their teeth on the brush fire season (in 2007).
Were talking a lot more about safety, reminding guys to remain hydrated and using common sense out in the field.
As of Friday, the mean soil moisture in Collier County is 522 on the Keetch-Byram Drought Index, which measures soil moisture on a zero to 800 scale with higher numbers representing increased fire risk. In Lee County the mean soil moisture is even higher, 578, with 34 percent of the county over the 600 mark.
We should be between 271 and 420, said Gerry LaCavera, a wildfire mitigation specialist with the Florida Division of Forestry. Thats what they would call a normal range for the month of December, the winter months.
LaCavera said Southwest Florida is between 7.3 and 15.5 inches short of rainfall, depending on the exact location.
The only thing that saved us is we got a lot of early morning fog and dew that came in with some of these cold fronts, LaCavera said. Thats really whats kept us from running fires to a large degree. … The time of year doesnt matter as much as how dry we are.
As soon as the morning fog and dew starts to dry out, LaCavera said more fires may start popping up; the beginning of what experts expect to be a long and intense fire season in Southwest Florida.
By February we could be hot and heavy, he said.
To prepare, LaCavera said Southwest Florida firefighters are training for how to safely battle wildfires, learning new techniques and how to cover different positions in an incident command system. Theyre also working on reducing the fuel load in the region by conducting prescribed burns and thinning forest underbrush through mechanical means.
Why, exactly, Southwest Florida is going through such an extended drought is still baffling some experts, said Russell Pfost, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Miami. Floridas east coast actually received above average rainfall in 2007, he said.
In general, Pfost said, the Gulf Coast didnt receive as much rain as was expected during last winters weak El Nino, a warming of the Pacific waters off the coast of South America that usually leads to increased rain. The Gulf Coast is currently under a moderate La Nina, Pfost said, which typically leads to below average rainfall.
Add to that two quiet wet seasons in a row and you have a drought of historic proportions.
In my opinion, there are a lot of things about the overall circulation patterns that go beyond the El Nino and La Nina patterns that we just dont understand yet, Pfost said. Our understanding of the very dynamic circulation patterns of the globe is not far enough advanced for us to completely understand why the east coast of Florida would have above average rainfall while the Gulf Coast of Florida would be below normal as far as it is.
Its very unusual.
The forecast through March calls for continued warm temperatures and lower than average rainfall.
One good storm in the winter time for South Florida can completely turn things around, Pfost said.
Regardless of why the drought exists, the fact is it does, and fire officials are asking residents to do their part to prevent fires and protect themselves. LaCavera said homeowners should clean up debris on their roofs and maintain a 30-foot buffer between their homes and any dense vegetation.
Authorities are also asking residents to take common sense precautions to prevent fires in the first place. Until lightning season kicks in around June, about three-quarters of all fires in Southwest Florida are caused by people, LaCavera said.
Residents are asked to refrain from tossing cigarette butts from their vehicles or burning fires in their yards without the local fire departments permission. They should also keep their vehicles well maintained so they dont shoot sparks on the road, fire officials said.
If we get one fire in a heavily populated area there is potential for some serious problems, Hill said.
We dont want what happened on the West Coast from happening here. The only way we can prevent that is if residents are helping us by taking preventative and proactive measures.