See how dry we are
GOLDEN GATE ESTATES — The threat of a significant brush fire season looms across the region, and for the second straight year, La Niña weather patterns aren't helping.
The region's drought index has spiked to an abnormally high level for this time of year due to the lack of rain and above-average temperatures. Meanwhile, the vegetation has had ample opportunity to grow, creating fuel for severe wildfires.
So far in 2012, Southwest Florida has accumulated just 0.42 inches of rain, well below the average of 2.97 inches for the first six weeks of the year. From Jan. 16 through Feb. 10, Southwest Florida experienced 26 straight days of above-average temperatures.
Mix in La Niña, a weather pattern — opposite of El Niño — that typically brings drought to the southeastern United States, and Southwest Florida firefighters are bracing for a busy spring.
"The conditions are setting up to be a potential repeat of last year in terms of weather," said Victor Hill, a Florida Forest Service wildfire mitigation specialist. "The forecast says that we are setting up to have another La Niña year, and we haven't had back-to-back La Niña patterns since 2000. So ultimately, that is where the big concern is for us."
Hill pointed to an April 2000 fire that burned 15,627 acres in Collier County as an example of what can result from two consecutive years of dry weather.
"The drought index is not necessarily an indicator that we will have a fire, but it is an indicator that we're getting pretty dry. Right now, it's in the red, ranging from 450 to 599," Hill said. "So we're getting on board with our support agencies like the fire department, law enforcement and emergency services so everyone is speaking the same language."
The Forest Service uses the Keetch-Byram drought index, which is a scale for estimating the dryness of the soil. The index factors days without rain and the daily high temperature. Its scale ranges from 0 (plenty of moisture) to a high of 800, according to the agency's website.
"What we're experiencing is very typical of a La Niña weather pattern and for Southwest Florida that means warmer than average temperatures and lower than normal precipitation," said John Patrick, a meteorologist in Fort Myers for NBC-2 and ABC-7. "Within the next week we might get a little rain, but it's not going to amount to much. We don't see anything that is going to be a drought-buster coming at us."
So the Forest Service and local fire departments are teaming up to get the word out to residents on how to take preventative measures to protect their property.
"It's a beautiful paradise down here, but we have vegetation that is extremely combustible," Golden Gate Fire Chief Robert Metzger said. "Internally, we're taking steps to make sure our people are prepared. The best thing we can do is to get the word out to the public and heighten awareness."
The most important step that residents can take to protect themselves from fires is to get rid of dry, dead vegetation around the home.
Hill also suggested properly irrigating lawns and clearing away "aggressively exotic" plants and trees such as the papery melaleucas.
"We always tell people to maintain at least 30 feet of lean, clean and green space around your property," Hill said. "You don't have to completely clear-cut your property. We just want to emphasize responsible landscaping."
The Forest Service provides an educational program called Firewise, which gives tips on how to protect your property from fire.
"Having these preventative measures in place really makes a big difference," Hill said. "If people have any questions they can call the Forest Service or their local fire department and we can give them advice."
While Florida has a year-round brush fire threat, the heart of it is from March until the rains come in June.
Patrick said one positive sign is that La Niña weather patterns are expected to weaken throughout the spring.
But there are ample danger signs as well.Naples Fire Chief Steve McInerny compared current conditions to those of June 1998, when a series of major wildfires wreaked havoc on Central Florida, torching nearly 500,000 acres and causing mass evacuations of neighborhoods.
"In 1998, the state of Florida was literally in flames," McInerny said. "We may actually see a repeat in 2012 of what we saw in 1998. Unfortunately, we are really in a dry spell that isn't too promising for getting water."