Annual lightning strikes bring wildfire danger

Annual lightning strikes bring wildfire danger

8 April 2009

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It’s as if Florida has been cut in half.

In the southern part of the state, forestry officials are looking at tinder dry landscape and the approaching peak of wildfire season.

In the Panhandle, flooding has closed more than 200 roads, killed two people and prompted evacuations in five counties.

“It’s like a tale of two states,” said Patrick Mahoney, wildfire mitigation specialist for the state Division of Forestry district that includes Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte, DeSoto and Hardee counties.

The rest of Florida, including the Tampa Bay area, is facing dry conditions more typically seen in May near the end of the dry season.

On a scale of 0 to 800 that measures drought and indicates fire danger where 0 is saturated and 800 is a desert, most counties in the region are above 600 and DeSoto is above 700.

And this is the same time firefighters are looking at the most explosive six weeks of the state’s wildfire season.

In a few weeks, thunderstorms will begin popping up. Eventually they will become common enough to end the dry season and ease the fire danger. That usually happens around the end of June.

Until then, though, the lightning they produce will become the main source of wildfires.

Those lightning strikes often happen in remote areas that are difficult for firefighters to reach and can burn for some time before they are noticed.

“Lightning usually hits late in the afternoon and we don’t discover it until the next day,” said Chris Kintner, spokeswoman for the forestry district that covers Hillsborough, Pinellas and Polk counties.

The forestry division usually sends up aircraft in the mornings after lightning storms to spot fires that may have started the day before, she said.

The lightning season starts first in southern Florida, beginning to kick up around the middle of April and lasting through the end of May.

Late April or early May usually marks the season’s start in the Tampa Bay area.

“If a lightning strike hits, it can be 48 hours before the fire might get up and run. Then things can get hairy in a hurry,” Mahoney said.

In 2008, lightning sparked more wildfires than any other cause, starting 27 percent of that year’s 2,847 fires.

So far this year, lightning caused only nine fires, including one in Pinellas County that burned 33 acres.
There will be more.

“We will have some significant fires before the end of May,” Kintner said.

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