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Despite the rain, Fire-prone forests not out of woods yet

By Staff | May 26, 2012

May has been wetter than normal, which has been a blessing in an area where wildfires can spring up, literally like a bolt of lightning.

But as hurricane season approaches, that doesn’t mean the risk of fires has gone. In fact, according to an expert, the danger of fires is a year-round thing.

Victor Hill, a wildlife mitigation specialist with the Caloosahatchee Forestry Center, said the early May rains helped initially.

“The rain came sooner, which was helpful. Even more, there weren’t as many lightning-caused fires,” Hill said. “We’ve had a few fires, but not to the degree of what we had last spring at Golden Gate Estates.”

That fire, caused by a lightning strike, burned more than 2,800 acres.

According to Katie Walls, WINK-TV meteorologist, rainy season began May 8, 12 days earlier than the May 20 average start.

“We’re heading out of La Nina to neutral, so we got started early,” Walls said. “We get about 70 percent of our rainfall in the summer.”

Because of the rain, the Forestry Service has been able to do more prescribed burns than in the past few years, including one on Pine Island last week, Hill said.

Yet even with the rain, much of the Caloosahatchee region is still dry, especially west of I-75, which has seen lower-than-normal rainfall for two years.

“The water table has lowered a bit. There’s less water in the ground, so the rain won’t eliminate the fire risk,” said Ernie Jillson, forecaster for the National Weather Service in Ruskin.

Collier County has stayed relatively wet. However, the further north and west you go, the drier it has gotten, according to the Florida Forest Service Website, which uses the Keetch Bryan Drought Index to determine the dryness of the vegetation and, therefore, the risk of fire.

In Cape Coral, the current risk is classified as moderate for most of the area, to severe in the north Cape.

“They don’t get too wet in Cape Coral until early summer,” Hill said. “The Northwest Gator Slough off Andalusia has one or two stray fires a year. Pine Island as well.”

Overall, Lee County’s drought is classified as D-1. Charlotte County is D-2.

But once the rainy season begins, that doesn’t mean the risk of fire ends. All it takes is one bolt of lightning, which causes about a quarter of all fires.

“Once the rain settles in, we still have fires. It’s a year-round thing,” Hill said. “There’s more lightning in the summer, and if you live in an area with more vegetation, you can’t get complacent.”

“June is the worst for forest fires because of the lightning,” Walls said. “They don’t die down until early July.”

But Hill said Cape Coral is ready in the event of a fire. He said the forestry service works with emergency responders and hopes to get the neighborhoods a designation they are fire free.

Jillson said the Climate Prediction Center predicts an average rainfall this summer.

“There’s no indication whether it will be wetter or drier. There’s no phenomena either way,” Jillson said.

The National Hurricane Center predicts an average hurricane season.