Do early wildfires foretell rough season for Central Florida?

Do early wildfires foretell rough season for Central Florida?

24 February 2009

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Australia — As crews fought to contain a sprawling brush fire in Lake County on Monday, fire officials warned that Central Floridians should be prepared for a potentially active wildfire season.

The conditions are ripe. We’re already in the midst of the dry season.

This winter’s rainfall has been lower than normal — only 3.3 inches of rain has dropped at Orlando International Airport since December, or about half of what it should be.

And the dry lawns, shrubs and other vegetation that was killed in recent freezes adds more fuel for fires.
“Typically, those are things which would point to a very active fire season,” said Gerry LaCavera, a wildfire-mitigation coordinator with the Division of Forestry. “Will it in fact happen? Hard to tell. The conditions are there.”

Meteorologists say critically dry conditions likely will continue for months. A “red-flag warning” was issued for Central Florida on Monday — meaning the combination of strong winds, low relative humidity and warm temperatures might “create explosive fire growth potential.”

The warning was lifted at 6 p.m. but the region remains at risk.

Only source now: Humans

So far this year, the forestry division has reported 41 wildfires in the Orlando district, which includes Orange, Seminole, Brevard and Osceola counties.

“It’s dry. But there’s really not an ignition source other than humans at this point,” said Wil Kitchings, a forest area supervisor with the Division of Forestry.

That means many of these wildfires could be prevented.

It can take just one cigarette butt tossed out a car window to start a fire in dry grass off Interstate 4. Other fires are caused by more carelessness — such as people burning garbage in their backyard.

Though it’s only February, some local fire departments already see an increase in brush fires.

Lake County fire crews have responded to 126 brush fires and illegal burns not involving structures since Jan. 1. That’s 91 more blazes than during the same period last year, according to Lake Assistant Fire Chief Jack Fillman.

“We already got started with a bang this year,” Fillman said. “It’s really dry. And when you add in that the recent freezes killed off a lot of the vegetation, it makes it worse.”

Fighting fire with fire

On Sunday afternoon, a massive brush fire southwest of Clermont forced residents of 14 homes to evacuate and led officials to close County Road 561 south of State Road 50.

The fire sparked just after noon in a large marshy area near the Palatlakaha River. By 6 p.m. it had kicked up to more than 600 acres.

On Monday morning, crews started setting controlled burns by dropping small balls filled with a fire accelerant along a line near C.R. 561. The balls ignite when they hit the ground, and the fires burn dried vegetation that can become fuel for a brush fire.

“What we’re doing is burning out the unburned fuel,” said Don Ruths, a spokesman for the Florida Division of Forestry.
By 3 p.m., the south Lake County brush fire was 85 percent contained and the total area burned, including the land scorched by controlled fires, reached 1,000 acres, Ruths said.

County firefighters said they expect the marshy area will continue to smolder for several days.

Fanning fears of ’98

Fire officials are hoping that the early start to the brush-fire season does not signal a repeat of the 1998 blazes that filled the state with smoke, shut down highways and burned more than 500,000 acres.
“Typical brush-fire season doesn’t start until April or early May, so this is not a good sign,” Fillman said.

Meanwhile, state troopers are prepared to take action if smoke becomes a hazard.

“We take shutting the roads down seriously because that’s people’s livelihoods,” Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Kim Miller said.

Drivers must be careful

Troopers have been trained to monitor a weather Web site that predicts fog and smoke problems, but they rely on other agencies and the public to learn of problems. Most times roadways are closed because of smoke-related visibility issues, but sometimes the wildfire itself is a threat to motorists, Miller said.

Troopers work with the state Department of Transportation and local law-enforcement agencies to close roadways. The first time it usually takes 30 to 45 minutes to close a roadway and an hour or more to clear the road of traffic. It goes much faster on subsequent nights because equipment such as signs are left in the area and everybody knows where their post is, she said.

Troopers can’t always close every road. “Some of your smaller roads may not get shut down,” Miller said. “We have to rely on drivers using caution.”

Safety in the smoke

Authorities offer these tips to motorists if they encounter smoky conditions:

*Turn on low-beam headlights. High beams will be reflected — which will impair visibility.

*Watch out for slow-moving or parked vehicles. Open the window a little so you can hear what’s going on outside your vehicle.

*Reduce distractions. Turn off the radio and cell phone.

*Use the right edge of the road or painted road markings as a guide.

*Be patient. Avoid passing or changing lanes.

*Signal turns in advance and brake early as you approach a stop.

*Do not stop on a freeway or heavily traveled road. If smoke or fog becomes too thick that you cannot see well enough to keep driving, pull all the way off the road and turn on emergency flashers. Leave sufficient space between your vehicle and the roadway so you can safely exit the vehicle without obstructing traffic.

*Report hazards to the Florida Highway Patrol. Call *FHP from your cell phone.

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