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Winter ‘dry season’ brings wildfire risk

By Staff | Jan 7, 2011

Despite the rain Thursday, the chance for wildfires will remain strong as vegetation can quickly dry out after unsustained showers.
The National Weather Service attributed the wet day to a front that moved through the area with rain ahead of it and along with it. Meteorologist Richard Rude said dry conditions are predicted over the weekend, but residents will see an increase in clouds Sunday night.
Monday is expected to be mostly cloudy with a 20 percent chance of rain.
“After Tuesday, it looks dry again,” Rude said.
Though called a welcome relief for the dry conditions, officials said it is a temporary one and the rain is not sufficient enough to lower the chance for wildfires. According to officials, sustained rains like those seen during the wetter months are what help curb the chance for wildfires in the area.
“Unfortunately, it’s not going to take very long for the soil and the vegetation to dry out,” Victor Hill, a wildfire mitigation specialist with the Florida Division of Forestry, said. “You have all these winds and cooler air that is very quickly going to dry the vegetation out.”
In Lee County, there were 69 recorded wildfires in 2010, 2008 and 2005.
On Friday, Cape Coral ranked in the 500 range on the drought index, which is a measure of moisture content related to vegetation. The scale ranges from zero to 800. Zero indicates a high moisture content, while anything over 750 is “pretty dangerous,” Hill said.
The region was middle of the road on the fire danger index, which gauges the probability that wildfires might occur.
“Right now we’re at a moderate chance,” he said.
The peak months for wildfire activity are March through May in Lee County, and local responders typically deal with wildfires until steady rains set in near the end of June. This year, Southwest Florida is anticipated to have a drier-than-normal spring based on the long-term weather forecast.
The presence of La Nina, meaning drier air is moving through the area, will lead to drier vegetation and the chance for increased wildfire activity. Last year, the area experienced El Nino, resulting in a wetter-than-normal spring.
With a forecasted drier-than-normal year, the department is conducting prescribed burns and clearing out vegetation to help reduce the chance for wildfire activity. Officials also are asking that residents to do their part by taking care of their property.
“We got a little bit of rain, but that’s not enough reason for people to get complacent,” Hill said. “It’s as simple as maintaining your property.”
Residents should cut their grass, keep it green and remove dead vegetation from around their home. They also can practice smart landscaping by steering clear of plants that foster fire, such as the saw palmetto.
The entrance to the home should be accessible for emergency responders.
“What happens if we have to come in to protect your property? What if we have to drive a transport or truck down your driveway?” Hill asked. “The more open it is, the easier it’s going to be for us to protect it (the home).”
He added that residents should get to know their neighbors and talk to one another about property maintenance. For example, a neighbor may not have the tools or strength to clear around his or her home alone and needs help.
The Florida Division of Forestry also offers Firewise Communities, a program where staffers will work with a neighborhood to determine what can needs to be done to protect the community against wildfires. They do a workshop with the neighborhood, create a fire board and the neighborhood is certified.
“We would love to see more of these communities spring up in Cape Coral,” Hill said.
Currently, there are no Firewise Communities in the city.
For more information about Firewise, contact Hill at 690-3500, ext. 104.