FL girds for horrific wildfire season

Forecasters suggest wildfires this year may be as bad or worse as those in 1998 when about 120 homes were destroyed.


"It is possible that we could be looking at a fire season as bad or worse than we had in 1998."

—James Karels, Florida Division of Forestry

The latest seasonal outlook from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) warns that despite some heavy storms in February and March, both western Texas and Oklahoma and much of California, along with central and south Florida are likely to see drought conditions continue or get worse into June.

The wildfire season in all of these areas typically ends in June with the onset of summer rains, but long range forecasts predict that the drought conditions across the south over the last year have been so severe that even if rains were to return at normal levels, fire threats would not diminish this year.

In central and south Florida, drought has been increasing, and some cities had their driest winter on record. In the panhandle across the northern part of the state, heavy rains in March and early April eased the fire threat for now. In that area of the state, flooding is a greater threat than fire.

“Flood potential is high across North Florida at this time and fire threat remains high in central and south Florida,” said James Karels, director of the Florida Division of Forestry. “It is possible that we could be looking at a fire season as bad or worse than we had in 1998.”

In 1998, extremely dry conditions, coupled with temperatures that fell below 95 degrees only once in the month of June, set the central part of the state, literally, ablaze, burning 120,000 acres that month. In all, about 120 homes were destroyed and hundreds were damaged. Twenty-three people were injured by those fires.

“Many of those fires were in rural or agricultural areas,” Karals said. “In the last 11 years, a lot of those areas have become more developed.”

Steve Plummer, deputy fire chief in Volusia County in Central Florida, said the number of homes has increased while the amount of firefighting equipment has not kept pace. If the predicted fires are burning in densely populated areas, he said, firefighters simply will not have the equipment or manpower to save as many homes as they did a decade ago.

Residents in fire prone areas are being warned to take precautions that will lessen the threat to their homes. Trees and bushes near houses should be trimmed and dry leaves and grass should be taken away from the homes.

“Our first priority is always to save people and then property,” Plummer said. “That won’t change no matter how many homes are in the path of a fire.”

NOAA and other weather watch organizations have been issuing fire warnings in Florida for several months on an almost daily basis. Fire activity is expected to increase across Florida and southeast Georgia throughout April and May. There will probably see a higher-than-usual amount of fire danger in May as well.

“The threat is very real,” Karels said. “The conditions are absolutely ideal for fires. It’s going to be a long, hot summer in Florida and elsewhere in the South.”

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