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Dangerously dry: But fire officials say being proactive can help curb brushfires

By Staff | Apr 14, 2012

As the dry season continues with no regular rainfall in sight, fire officials stress using common sense and some proactive measures to help curb the number of brushfires.

“We are in one of the driest conditions for the month of April,” Cape Coral Fire Department Division Chief Tom Tomich said.

Desert-like conditions were seen in 2011, but later in the year, like May.

“Now, we’re over 700 in the (drought) index,” Tomich said.

The drought index is a measure of moisture content to vegetation, and it ranges from zero to 800. Zero indicates a high moisture content, so the higher the number, the drier the vegetation and greater chance for fires.

“We’re drier than we were and there’s not a lot of rain in sight,” he said.

In the last month, the CCFD has responded to 25 to 30 brushfires.

“There’s no lightning this time of year,” Tomich said. “So these fires are either careless fires or intentional.”

Victor Hill, a wildfire mitigation specialist with the Florida Forest Service’s Caloosahatchee Forestry Center, agreed that such fires are on the rise.

“People have been making a lot more bad choices this year,” he said.

As of Friday, the Florida Forest Service had responded to 41 fires in Lee County since the start of the year, with 127 acres total burned. During the same time last year, there were 22 fires recorded and 560 acres burned.

“Last year, we had a couple of debris burns that got out and burned larger numbers of acres,” Hill said. “We’ve had several smaller fires this year.”

With wildfire season expected to run until June, or until the consistent pattern of afternoon rains sets in, officials are asking for some help.

“We’re only as good as the partnership that we have with the residents,” Hill said, adding that people should keep an eye out for any suspicious activity.

That can mean a vehicle parked or people loitering near a brush area.

“It really doesn’t take much for a fire to start up,” he said.

If people see a vehicle come out of a wooded area, they should call 911.

“We need to aggressively pursue people that intentionally set fires, and we will,” Tomich said.

Residents can also help by not throwing cigarette butts from vehicles.

“The next thing you know, you have a smoldering fire,” he said.

Recreational fires is another issue. People can use store-bought outside chimneys and burners in the Cape, but an open fire pit is not permitted. Residents should not burn any debris or trash in their chimney or burner.

“They just don’t really need to do it,” Tomich said.

A garden hose should be kept nearby to put out the fire if necessary.

When using a lawn mower, watch for sparks if it contacts stone.

“There could be a little fire burning behind them,” he said. “That has happened before.”

Hot exhaust pipes from vehicles can also start brushfires.

“They just need to be aware, need to have an awareness of their surroundings,” Tomich said.

Residents can help by taking some proactive measures, too.

“The big thing is looking at your home in a very common sense kind of fashion,” Hill said. “We call it, ‘Lean, clean and green.'”

Do not have a lot of dense thick vegetation within 30 feet of a home, and clear away the dry and dead vegetation. If possible, make smarter choices when it comes to mulch, like using chunkier ones, or use stones or gravel.

“Water as often as you’re allowed, given the local restrictions,” he said.

According to the Paul Close, a forecaster for the Tampa Bay office of the National Weather Service, the drier conditions are expected to continue.

“There’s been no real rain in the forecast until next week,” he said Friday. “And even next week there’s not a real high chance of rain – 20 percent.”

A system that came through last week was mostly offshore.

“It didn’t help,” Close said. “It wasn’t must help.”

Since September, there has been 23.6 inches of rain recorded at Page Field in Fort Myers, an increase from 22.75 inches in 2011. However, most of that rainfall – 20.59 inches – was recorded before the beginning of November.

Three years ago, 3.38 inches was recorded during the same time frame.

“It’s actually less than it was in ’09 when we had that bad drought,” he said, adding that presently there is “no real change in the forecast for a while.”