USA — A wildfire season expected to rival some of the worst on record is already flaring across Southwest Florida, as unusually dry weather ignites a tinderbox of frost-killed leaves and grasses.
Freezes this winter killed thousands of acres of vegetation and back-to-back cold fronts have sucked moisture from the land, leading to wildfires erupting earlier than usual this year.
Below-normal rainfall over a period of months has heightened the risk.
“Right now just about anything that can cause a spark can cause a fire,” said Duane Weis, manager of the Florida Division of Forestry’s Myakka River District.
More cool, dry air moved into the area Thursday evening on the heels of light, scattered rain.
The air is so dry that it has erased any moisture brought by the rain, increasing fire risk today through Saturday evening.
The National Weather Service declared a red-flag warning on Thursday, signaling that the breezy weather and low humidity can rapidly turn a tiny blaze into a raging wildfire.
“We’re a little bit drier than we should be this time of year and then we’ve also had a couple of events of freezing more than we would expect,” Weis said.
Frost this winter killed grasses and leaves, which essentially act like gunpowder once they catch fire.
Friction from farm machinery, embers from campfires and smoldering cigarette butts all contain enough heat to spark a wildfire under these dry conditions.
Spring is normally Florida’s driest season, but this year is forecast to be drier than usual.
As the next few months grow warmer and drier, fire danger will only increase, said Ernie Jillson, meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Ruskin office.
The Keetch Byram Drought Index, a measure of soil moisture used to predict fire risk, is above 600 in Sarasota, Charlotte and Hardee counties. The index ranges from 0 to 800, with the highest number akin to desert conditions.
DeSoto and Glades counties rank driest in the state with indexes above 700.
Making conditions more dangerous in DeSoto, there are several wooded acres crammed with fallen trees and broken branches from Hurricane Charley in 2004.
Most of the debris from Charley has been cleared, but there is enough on the ground in remote areas to make fires harder to extinguish, Weis said.
Already, DeSoto County fire fighters have battled an average of two brush fires a day, said C.W. Blosser, a captain with DeSoto Fire and Rescue.
Last week, the county squelched a brush fire that grew to 600 acres. Some of the fires have come close to homes, but none have caused damage, Blosser said.
“Basically we’re just reminding the public right now, all our folks in DeSoto, to refrain from doing any outside burning,” Blosser said.
In Charlotte County on Wednesday about 100 acres burned before firefighters there extinguished the blaze.
Increasingly dry conditions are likely to result in bans on burning trash, shooting fireworks and lighting bonfires, said Sarasota County Fire Chief Brian Gorski.
Gorski said the fire department will suggest an emergency burn ban in Sarasota when the drought index climbs.
“You’ll still get these cold fronts coming through and they come through with no rain,” Gorski said. “That just is a time bomb waiting to happen when you get conditions like that.”