Florida officials are warning residents to be vigilant as dry conditions are producing high wildfire risks across the state.
The risk is especially high in the Florida Panhandle, where Hurricane Michael created an abundance of timber and debris that is vulnerable to the lack of rain.
“Conditions are especially dangerous for firefighters working to suppress fires in the Panhandle where Hurricane Michael left an exponential volume of damaged timber resulting in dense pockets of vegetation,” Jim Karels, state forester and director of the Florida Forest Service, said in a news release.
The Keetch Byram Drought Index, which measures soil dryness, shows virtually the entire state is reporting below-average rainfall, while areas in the western Panhandle have the driest conditions across the state.
In general, the Panhandle shows the greatest degree of below-average rainfall for September. Locally, the lack of rain – especially in Sarasota, Manatee and Hernando counties – has produced enhanced wildfire risks in those areas.
As of Thursday, the National Weather Service reports just .16 inches of rain has fallen in Sarasota and Bradenton, 2.44 inches below. Tampa (1.45 inches as of Thursday) has more than 4 inches below normal rainfall, and Brooksville (2.07 inches) was nearly 4 inches below normal.
“Florida’s dry conditions and high temperatures pose elevated wildfire threats throughout the state. I encourage all Floridians and visitors to be vigilant and cautious with all outdoor fire,” Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said in a news release. “When citizens exercise caution, they’re doing more than just protecting themselves and their property – they’re helping protect the lives of Florida’s wildland firefighters and first responders.”
Officials warn that “most of the wildfires this year have been human-caused” and are urging residents to use caution while burning fire outdoors, including campfires and grills.
According to the Forest Service, there are 26 active wildfires burning across Florida. Since January, 1,475 wildfires have burned 89,105 acres.
The dry conditions will continue throughout the Tampa Bay area into the weekend, according to the National Weather Service, with an increased chance of showers not occurring until Sunday into early next week. Temperatures are forecast to remain at or above 90 well into next week.