Fla. Firefighters Hope For Rain to Quiet Wildfire Season

Florida officials are saying the most likely scenario for a 2013 wildfire season, which lasts officially into the spring or early summer depending on the weather, appears normal.

Tampa Tribune, Fla.

Feb. 10--TAMPA -- With weather forecasting technology that can spot a raindrop 40 miles away and record a lightning strike in the time it takes for lightning to strike, figuring the probability for the state's wildfire season still comes down largely to vagaries of chance.

But the Florida Division of Forestry is giving it a shot. Its wildfire season forecast says the most likely scenario for a 2013 wildfire season, which lasts officially into the spring or early summer depending on the weather, appears normal.

That's not to say the season couldn't dip into a fiery inferno by April.

If the region continues to remain dry over the next few months, the wildfire potential would go from nearly normal to well above normal or critical, said Don Ruths, who works wildfires out of the Division of Forestry's Withlacoochee Forestry Center in Brooksville.

It's not panic time, he said, "but, we could use more precipitation."

"It would be nice if we got some rain," said Patrick M. Mahoney, a forestry wildfire mitigation specialist in Bradenton. "Right now we're running on some small fires, we have a lot of activity, but nothing huge. We're just hoping to get some rain. If we continue with this dryness, the season will be quite active."

Hillsborough County recorded its first brush fire of the season last weekend near Riverview. And firefighters in the Moon Lake area of West Pasco County fought a 200-acre brush fire this week.

Firefighters extinguished the fire in Riverview but not before it scorched 35 acres over five hours. It threatened but did not damage a few houses in the area as well as a horse rescue facility. No one was injured.

The Moon Lake brush fire, which began on Monday, threatened some homes as well. Firefighters there believe the blaze might have been intentionally set.

The Division of Forestry has counted 311 wildfires across the state this year through last weekend, torching 3,689 acres. It's not much, but foresters are hoping for some steady rains over the next couple of months.

The rainfall charts from the National Weather Service in Ruskin say just over a half-inch of rain fell in the region in January, a month that averages more than 2 inches. Rainfalls in December and November also were below normal, the weather service statistics say.

Forecasters predict the dry conditions likely will continue, though all that is influenced by the wintertime oscillating weather patterns dipping into Florida from the north.

Like Division of Forestry firefighters, some weather service meteorologists are watching the skies as well.

Called incident meteorologists, they are dispatched to scenes of fires and help firefighters with crucial weather information such as wind direction and speed and any changes that may be expected, said Matt Ocana, weather service spokesman.

"They are standard meteorologists who are embedded in offices around the country," Ocana said. "During wildfires or other types of emergencies, meteorologists will deploy and go to that location.

Rick Davis is an incident meteorologist who works out of the National Weather Service in Ruskin and helped firefighters battle a blaze near Lake City for two weeks in 2012.

He said incident meteorologists undergo training to get the job and team up with firefighters out in the field.

"Weather," he said, "is crucial in fighting fires."

The wildfire outlook in Florida this year hinges on rain, he said, and the past couple of months, he said, have been very dry.

"All the green grass goes dormant and as spring comes, temperatures get higher and humidity gets lower," he said. Grass, leaves and pine needles dry out, providing fuel for fires.

"If we don't see much rainfall through May," he said, "we could see some increased fire activity. It all depends on how much rain we get over next two months."

Copyright 2013 - Tampa Tribune, Fla.

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