Florida, USA — A harsh drought has put Florida on track for yet another explosive outbreak of wildfires in the coming months, state officials warned Tuesday.
The dire pronouncement was meant to put everyone from homeowners to fire departments on alert. Already, managers of conservation lands and forest rangers who specialize in the gritty art of beating back wildfires have been preparing for the worst.
Recent global-weather patterns are compounding the already record-setting dry spell of the past two years with the formation of a La Niña, which typically dries out the Southeast during winter and spring.
The phenomenon, characterized by cooling waters in the equatorial Pacific, often doesn’t relent until the state’s annual rainy season kicks in to douse tinder-dry vegetation.
“We put a little red pin on June the 15th, a date that historically has been pretty good to us,” said Ira Jolly, chief of firefighting at the state Division of Forestry. “That’s when it’s rainy in South Florida and the rains are moving north.”
With the new year and a new fire season barely started, firefighters got a taste of action in Polk County that illustrated one critical danger of wildfire.
A week ago, a small fire set by a crew from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to burn away brush flared out of control.
Officials think the runaway flames near Polk City pumped smoke into a fog-bound stretch of Interstate 4, triggering extremely low visibility and an early-morning chain reaction of crashes that involved 70 vehicles and killed five people.
Since then, nightly fog and steady smoke from 500 acres of charred swamp and forest have bedeviled the Orlando-to-Tampa interstate.
Bad visibility prompted officials to shut down I-4 briefly early Tuesday.
State troopers are bracing for more dangerous driving caused by smoky fires.
“The fire season is always tough on us,” said Florida Highway Patrol Col. John Czernis, the agency’s new director. “We’ve responded to the hurricanes and to the fire issues in the past. We’ll do it again.”
Jolly said fighting fire has become more challenging as the drought has worsened and spread.
As a result, fires were breaking out across Florida, stretching hundreds of miles from Big Cypress Preserve in South Florida to Osceola National Forest at the Georgia line.
That stymied a key strategy of calling in overwhelming reinforcements from elsewhere in the state.
The Division of Forestry’s prime weapon against wildfire is a bulldozer pulling a plow, cutting open a swath of raw soils that blocks the spread of flames. About 550 firefighters from the forestry division are stationed across the state, with 304 bulldozer-plow units at their ready.
A backup plan calling for reinforcements from within Florida would be to seek help from nearby states. They also use bulldozers, a practice all but unique to the flat terrain of the Southeast.
At a wildfire summit Tuesday in Tallahassee, Gov. Charlie Crist referred to Florida’s reliance on nearby states by thanking delegations from Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee for attending.
“We welcome our neighboring states and federal partners who have come together with our team to address very serious issues,” Crist said.
But even their firefighters may be tied up when Florida needs them most.
“The whole Southeast is in crisis,” said Craig Fugate, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management. “But that’s where historically we’ve gone to get mutual aid to fight fires. They have the same kind of equipment. They fight the same kind of fires. But that kind of help may be hard to find if everybody is fighting fires.”
For now, forest managers plan to accelerate their plans to set controlled burns meant to thin growth in forest. That leaves the trees less susceptible to devastating fire.
Steve Miller, a director of land management at the St. Johns River Water Management District, said his crews have been steadily burning swamp and forests in 18 counties between Indian River County and the Georgia state line.
“We’re doing as much prescribed burning as we can so that we can weather the firestorms,” Miller said.