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Wildfire season gets active in South Florida

 The first major wildfires of 2022 broke out in the Florida Panhandle in March in Calhoun and surrounding counties
Florida Forest Service
The first major wildfires of 2022 broke out in the Florida Panhandle in March in Calhoun and surrounding counties

Everywhere listeners can hear WGCU Public Media on the radio is within the Southwest Florida region where dry soil and warm temperatures have had wildland firefighters on “high alert” since last week.

The Keetch-Byram Drought Index, a measure of the lack of moisture in the soil, has been showing the region increasingly parched during the last two weeks, another harbinger of wildfire.

The indicators were right.

New wildfires of about 30 acres each, one near Immokalee and the other on the Lee-Hendry county line, were reported early this week, and a seven-acre fire in Highlands County is controlled, as well as a 41-acre blaze in the heavily wooded Rotunda West area of Charlotte County.

A wildfire that scorched more than 20,500 acres east of Miami-Dade County over the weekend has been contained.

Miguel Nevarez, a Florida Forest Service wildfire mitigation specialist in the Okeechobee District, said those fires will not be the last in the region’s active wildfire season from January through April.

“The Florida Forest Service have been aware of the potentially elevated levels of fire danger that have been predicted throughout the first months of the year,” he said. “We are going to continue to make sure we stay on high alert for any future wildfires.”

Nevarez said a reason for the drought conditions is that many parts of South Florida have seen consistent moderate-to-high fire danger levels since the beginning of 2022 due in large part to the region being in a “La Niña” climate condition. La Niña normally results in drier than normal conditions and lower rainfall. The outlook is an overall trend for the next several months. There could be periods that are warmer or cooler, or wetter or dryer, but that does not mean the fire danger forecast will change.

Statewide, more than 80,000 acres of wildland has burned in Florida fires spread among nearly 1,200 wildfires by early April.

In March, a wildfire quickly grew to a blaze that scorched more than 30,000 acres in three counties amid the dead trees and dried vegetation left in the wake of Category 5 Hurricane Michael in 2018. In what is today’s Interstate 10’s east-west corridor, millions of pines have been planted during the last century by St. Joe Company, a lumber producer-turned-land developer, and Michael’s top winds of 155 miles per hours felled and splintered an untold number of trees. In the three years since, Florida’s heat turned timber into tinder.

In Florida, more than eight of ten wildfires are human caused. Some on purpose, but most caused by a lack of maintenance on equipment that interacts with the ground and is not properly maintained or used.

For example, a lack of maintenance on a lawn mower or an old catalytic converter can cause the piece of machinery to get very hot as it runs though underbrush. Chains, like those to secure a boat or trailer, left unhooked and drag behind a vehicle and cause sparks. Nevarez said people light campfires on windy days without thinking about wind-driven sparks. All of those things can contribute to the increased number of wildfires in our area.

“Now we may not be able to prevent natural weather such as lighting storms,” Nevarez said. “But we can be more aware of our individual actions to help prevent wildfires from occurring.”

Even national fire weather agencies are warning about conditions in Florida in April.

The Weather Company and Atmospheric G2 calls for temperatures to be near or slightly below average for April as a whole from the Northwest into the Northern Plains, Great Lakes, Ohio Valley and even parts of the mid-South. But above-average temperatures are also most likely in the Southwest, Florida and northern New England.

The Florida Forestry Service said homeowners living in woodsy areas should do these things prior to wildfire season to help save their homes because once a homeowner can smell wildlife smoke it is safest to leave:

1. Clean roofs and gutters of dead leaves, debris and pine needles that could catch embers

2. Clean debris from exterior attic vents

3. Clean and remove any dead debris from underneath decks or porches

4. Repair or replace any damaged or loose window screens

5. Keep up with normal lawncare and home maintenance.

The agency also has a guide to “Be Wildfire Ready” here.

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health. 

If you’re interested in receiving a monthly environmental newsletter from WGCU, sign up for the Green Flash today.

Copyright 2022 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

Tom Bayles