Fire conditions worsen in Florida

    Fire conditions worsen in Florida

13 May 2008

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FL, USA — Just a few weeks after South Florida celebrated drought-relieving rains, the smell of smoke hanging in the air and the crunch of dried brush under foot show that the dry season has yet to be quenched.

Gov. Charlie Crist on Monday declared a state of emergency in response to thousands of acres of wildfires in the central Atlantic coast, where flames threatened homes and smoke at times closed Interstate 95. Also on Monday, the 1 �½-week-old fire burning Lake Okeechobee’s drought-exposed lake bed grew to 10,000 acres.

Firefighters from Broward and Palm Beach were readying to head north to help on Monday, while also continuing to respond to local fires that signify how a dry start to May leaves the region ripe for wildfires.

Monday afternoon, small brush fires threatened homes in heavily wooded Jupiter farms and near sugar cane fields in Belle Glade, said Capt. Don DeLucia, spokesman for the Palm Beach County Fire Rescue.

Fire spread across three acres in Southwest Ranches early Monday. In the afternoon, three small fires sprang up along U.S. 27 in Weston and traffic came to a stop on a small stretch of the Sawgrass Expressway after a fire in the median between exits for State Road 7 and University Drive.

Fire totals for Florida’s southeast coast have actually been below normal this year, but worsening conditions threaten to change that, said Scott Peterich, wildfire mitigation specialist for the state Division of Forestry.

High winds and temperatures more suited for midsummer than the end of spring have started to sap standing water, leaving behind dried out brush that can fuel fires.

“It’s starting to dry up and our fire danger is getting greater and greater every day,” Peterich said.

The past three months brought above normal rainfall, but a pattern of almost weekly showers seemed to stop just as the South Florida Water Management District on April 18 eased watering restrictions.

Lake Okeechobee, the region’s back-up water supply, remains about 3 feet below normal.

That doesn’t mean that the district plans to go back to once a week watering limits, said Chip Merriam, the district’s deputy executive director.

The decision to ease restrictions and allow most homes and businesses to start watering twice a week was based on water supplies being able to survive no rainfall in May, with relief expected to come at the start of the summer rainy season, Merriam said.

“What we are seeing now isn’t the best case scenario,” Merriam said. But he said “this is not atypical for April and May.”

Recent record-setting high temperatures combined with strong winds added to evaporation that saps moisture from soil and plants, making it easier for fire to spread, according to the Division of Forestry.

South Florida in the past few days experienced temperatures 7 to 10 degrees above normal, according to meteorologist Andy Tingler of the National Weather Service’s Office in Miami-Dade County.

The forecast on Monday didn’t offer immediate relief. While high temperatures are expected to return to the 80s starting today, the best hope for rain would be a 20 percent chance on Sunday, according to the National Weather Service.

On Monday, dry conditions fueled a 3,000-acre fire in Malabar that destroyed at least two homes. Another fire in nearby Palm Bay claimed one home and prompted at least two schools to release students early as a precaution.

About 80 miles north in Daytona Beach, an 800-acre fire led to an evacuation order for about 500 homes.

The governor’s state of emergency allows Florida to use federal funds and the National Guard. It also allows the state to take control of local emergency crews and to call on other states for help.

Broward Sheriff Fire Rescue offered to send firefighters.

Palm Beach County organized a five-engine task force Friday afternoon made up of two engines from Palm Beach County Fire Rescue and one engine each from Boca Raton, Palm Beach Gardens and Boynton Beach Fire Rescues, said C.R. Brown, deputy chief of operations at Palm Beach Gardens.

Wildfires fires started by lightning strikes are nature’s way of thinning out overgrown land, but the spread of development has put neighborhoods into harm’s way. It also leads to more manmade fires.

The fire burning across 10.5 miles of Lake Okeechobee’s southwestern edge was suspected to be arson, according to the division of forestry.

Sparks from cars or recreational vehicles, unattended campfires and discarded cigarettes are other common culprits, DeLucia said.

“It’s just people being careless,” he said.

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