Freeze expected to add kindling to Florida’s wildfire season

Freeze expected to add kindling to Florida’s wildfire season

2 January 2008

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USA — Tomorrow morning’s expected below-freezing temperatures will gone by the weekend, but will leave behind a more lasting problem — increased wildfire danger across an already dry Florida.

The cold, dry air expected to attack citrus crops and tropical plants at nurseries and homes also dries out and kills off unprotected plants growing in the wild, leaving behind fuel for any fires that might start this winter.

“It no longer has the moisture in it, it’s almost like kindling, it’s ready to burn,” said Terence McElroy, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Fire officials were already anticipating a tough wildfire season, since virtually the entire state has been in drought heading into the dry season, stretching from now until spring rains start around May, McElroy said.

Now, the arctic air mass that spawned freeze warnings across the entire state “is just going to make matters even worse,” McElroy said.

Temperatures in Sarasota-Bradenton are expected to drop below 30 degrees for the first time since 2003. The temperatures were expected to be even lower away from coastal areas with wind chills below 10 degrees.

A red flag warning covered all of West Central Florida on Wednesday, as the high winds and dry air associated with the cold snap meant any spark quickly could become a large wildfire.

The entire state was under a freeze at the same time. Much of the state’s prime citrus growing areas were expected to get temperatures in the 20s early overnight, so Gov. Charlie Crist signed an emergency order relaxing trucking restrictions allowing citrus farmers to quickly harvest and transport sensitive crops.

Area farmers did what they could Wednesday to bump up the temperatures in their fields.

“We’re setting up to run water in all our micro-jet areas, where we have Valencias and Murcott tangerines,” said Scott Schuyler, citrus production manager for SMR Farms at Lakewood Ranch. “They are the most susceptible to long-term affects.

The Valencias need to stay on the trees until April-May, and the tangerines won’t get picked for another six weeks.”

Schuyler added that picking of Hamlins and pineapple oranges is already underway, and may be accelerated if the freeze does significant damage.

“Juice plants sometimes increase their trailer pickups,” Schuyler said. “They want the fruit off the trees before it dries out.”

The worst thing that could happen in a freeze at this time of year, Schuyler added, is that fruit membranes get ruptured, causing the fruit to dry out.

“We’re looking at the freeze starting at 1 a.m., and the temperature dropping to 26 by dawn,” Schuyler said Wednesday morning. “The winds are expected to blow at 7 to 9 miles per hour. If the winds stay up, watering may cause more harm than good.”

About 70 percent of the water that will be run at SMR will be reclaimed water.
Schuyler added that SMR’s sod could also be damaged by a frost.

“It won’t kill it. It will just brown out,” Schuyler said.

Nurseries across the region are also taking action to protect their tropical and flowering plants.

“We’ve got them covered in the greenhouses and the frost cloths down,” said Nancy Hotalen, co-owner of H&H Nursery on S.R. 64 on East Manatee. “We’ll run water when its coldest from two to four.”

Troy’s Tropics on Proctor Road in Sarasota is getting the heaters out.
“We pulled a lot of plants in last night,” said Franci Boessel, a Troy’s Tropics employee.

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