USA — What can brown do for you? When it comes to Polk County’s dying vegetation, brown translates to fresh wildfire tinder.
Last week’s three-day freeze killed off grass and plants around the county, fueling drought conditions and sparking an indefinite countywide burn ban.
Early Tuesday, Division of Forestry firefighters battled a 3 1/2-acre brush fire off Old Grade Road, just east of Polk City.
The fire began late Monday afternoon, but winds swirling burning embers ignited nearby vegetation.
By early Tuesday morning, firefighters had the fire contained and were working to put it out by removing brush with bulldozers, said Kyle Combee, a DOF firefighter.
The fire prompted the Florida Department of Transportation to place smoke warnings along Interstate 4, and Florida Highway Patrol troopers made hourly checks on driving conditions.
Despite early morning fog, there were no major incidents reported Monday night or early Tuesday on the interstate, according to the FHP.
On Tuesday, Polk County firefighters had bouts with several small fires in Fort Meade, Frostproof and Mulberry, but most didn’t grow larger than an acre, said Heather Smith, a spokeswoman for Polk County Public Safety.
“Right now, the driest part of the county is the southeast portion,” she said.
Relief from the current conditions is still a ways off for firefighters.
Rain isn’t expected until a cold front moves in later this week, which will bump the county’s chances for precipitation to 60 percent on Thursday and 50 percent on Friday, according to Bay News 9 forecasts.
According to the Keetch Byram Drought Index, used by the Division of Forestry to rate drought conditions, Polk’s index was listed at 624 on Tuesday, which indicates a severe danger for brush fires.
The southeastern part of the county is at a higher threat, with areas reporting index numbers higher than 700.
Fire officials said they become concerned any time the scale goes above 500 for 50 percent of the county.
The scale estimates the dryness of soil, which helps determine the threat of wildfire. The scale ranges from zero to 800, with the numbers climbing from wet to dry.
According to the DOF, Florida’s fire season has just begun and will peak in May or June.
The elevated drought level is expected this time of year because of rain coming at more unevenly spaced intervals in winter, said Juli Marquez, a Bay News 9 meteorologist. The area has also received below normal rainfalls lately.
“Unlike summer when it rains almost every day, in the winter we have to wait for a system to get here and then it is not always 100 percent coverage for the area,” Marquez said.
The burn ban includes the burning of trash, yard and construction debris, campfires, bonfires and the use of fireworks. Anyone who refuses to comply with the ban may face up to a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail.
Other factors can affect the possibility of fires, besides the lack of rain. “A lot of things affect the drought index, like wind conditions, what direction the wind is moving and how fast the winds are,” Marquez said.
Winds have been light at 5 to 10 mph but are likely to increase as the cold front begins to move in late today, and will probably increase after the front as well, Marquez said.
As the drought index increases, the Division of Forestry is issuing fewer permits, or none at all some days, to experienced burners for land clearing and controlled burning, said Gary Zipprer, a spokesman for the Lakeland office.
Zipprer warns people to use caution with cigarettes and pay attention when parking on dead grass while the ban is in affect.
“Fires caused by cigarettes are very, very limited, but the grass is very dead on the road shoulders right now,” he said. “Also, catalytic converters from cars cause more fires than cigarettes do. They can set the grass on fire if driving over a dry, grassy area.”