Firefighters battling blazes across Southwest Florida

Southwest Florida firefighters were busy Thursday evening after more than a half-dozen brush fires broke out in quick succession.

“We have lightning strikes all over Lee and Collier counties,” said Victor Hill, wildfire mitigation specialist for the Florida Division of Forestry’s Caloosahatchee Forestry Center.

What’s unusual right now is that fire officials don’t typically begin to see fires started by lightning until the rainy season hits, he said.

Golden Fire Control and Rescue district officials said that by 6:30 p.m. they had dealt with a couple of fires and were trying to wrap additional blazes including one near the intersection of 25th Avenue Northwest and Fourth Street Northwest, and another near the intersection of Keri Island Drive and Rock Road.

Hill said four homes were threatened at the 25th Avenue fire, and that there were a lot of homes in the area. Instead of one fire at that site, Hill said that the blaze was actually made up of two: one small, two-acre fire and a larger, 10-acre blaze.

Another 20-acre fire started just before 8 p.m. near the intersection of Immokalee Road and 37th Avenue Northeast.

In addition two brush fires, one 75 acres and another 25 to 30 acres, broke out in the Big Cypress National Preserve Thursday night, as did a 500- to- 600-acre fire at the Picayune Strand State Forest.

Most of the county’s fire districts helped each other out Thursday as the fire calls just kept coming, Hill said.

Hill said residents could expect heavy smoke Friday from all of the fires.

May is typically one of the busiest months for wildfires in Southwest Florida, but Hill said the number of brush fires has skyrocketed this year. By May 2, Hill said Collier County had 33 wildfires, compared to 16 last year.

Collier County is at 619 on the Keetch-Byram Drought Index, which measures soil moisture on a zero to 800 scale with higher numbers representing increased fire risk,NBC-2 Chief Meteorologist Haley Webb said.

“We are more than 3/4 up the scale,” Webb said.

That means the ground is so dry it would need 6.19 inches of rain to saturate, Webb said. By the end of April, Webb said Collier was 5.3 inches down from normal.

May is shaping up to be a little better, with rainfall only down 1.05 inches from normal.

In spite of rain being in forecast over the next few days, Southwest Florida’s rainy season is not expected to start until mid-June, Webb said.

But weather is only on part of the cause, Hill said.

“We are running into situations that are preventable,” Hill said, adding that with the weather being as dry as it is, people need to be responsible and aware of how their actions can start a fire. “We have actually have had a situation in Lee county where a cigarette started a wild fire.”

Hill said dry, dead vegetation doesn’t need much to turn into a wildfire that threatens homes. In addition, simple things like a hot lawn mower, an overheated ATV engine, a property owner who insists on burning yard debris or even a curious, unsupervised child can also spark a brushfire.

Naples Daily News staff writer Kelly Farrell contributed to this report.

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