Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Fire Season's Potential Hazy in Drought's Wake Rainfall Up, but Dry Past Still Hurts

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Fire Season's Potential Hazy in Drought's Wake Rainfall Up, but Dry Past Still Hurts

Article excerpt

Byline: Dana Treen, Times-Union staff writer

Though rains in Northeast Florida have been steady this year, the impact of a three-year drought has local fire forecasters wary of what to expect as the 2002 wildfire season approaches its peak.

"The big unknowns are what are the effects of a prolonged drought and reduced ground water?" said Bruce Hill, manager of the state Division of Forestry's Jacksonville district.

While enough rain has fallen to keep the average drought index in Duval, Clay, Nassau and St. Johns counties at a damp 208 on a scale of 800, Florida's northern tier experienced winter freezes that added dead vegetation that would burn in a woods fire.

"We've been in this weather pattern for the last few weeks where we get a little rain and that helps us over the next few weeks," Hill said. "We've still got May and June to deal with, and to me that is the key to the fire season."

While Florida's wildfire season typically runs from December through June, according to the state forestry agency, the greatest number of acres are burned in April and May because of post-winter dry spells. In June and July, lightning adds to the risk.

The combination of freezes and vegetation under stress from three dry years has state forecasters predicting a potentially active fire season.

Meteorologist Marie Trabert of the National Weather Service in Jacksonville said Northeast Florida can expect slightly less than normal rainfall and slightly higher than normal temperatures in May, though long-term predictions through July show the region can expect normal rainfall and temperatures.

The state is entering what typically is the driest time of the year, according to state fire forecasters. Forecasters are predicting that lightning, a leading cause of woods fires, should begin flashing across the state this month and continue through May.

Florida's most serious recent fire season came in 1998, when 506,000 acres burned across the state.

Since 1998, responses to woods fires have changed, Hill said. …

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