Conditions ripe for busy Southwest Florida fire season, officials say

David Albers/Staff - 
 A young deer forages among new growth in a recently burned area of the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012, in rural Collier County.  The area underwent prescribed burning to replicate the natural wildfires of the ecosystem.

Photo by DAVID ALBERS, Naples Daily News // Buy this photo

David Albers/Staff - A young deer forages among new growth in a recently burned area of the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012, in rural Collier County. The area underwent prescribed burning to replicate the natural wildfires of the ecosystem.

David Albers/Staff - 
 Visitors walk the boardwalk of the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012, in rural Collier County.

Photo by DAVID ALBERS, Naples Daily News // Buy this photo

David Albers/Staff - Visitors walk the boardwalk of the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012, in rural Collier County.

David Albers/Staff - 
 New growth sprouts from saw palmetto in a recently burned area of the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012, in rural Collier County.  The area underwent prescribed burning to replicate the natural wildfires of the ecosystem.

Photo by DAVID ALBERS, Naples Daily News // Buy this photo

David Albers/Staff - New growth sprouts from saw palmetto in a recently burned area of the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012, in rural Collier County. The area underwent prescribed burning to replicate the natural wildfires of the ecosystem.

As anyone who has been caught in the rain in recent weeks can attest, December was wetter than usual.

But as the high season for brush fires approaches, the December rains are likely not going to help Southwest Florida in the long run, fire officials and meteorologists say.

While forecasts initially indicated spring 2013 would be wetter than normal, they have been revised and Southwest Florida is looking at another dry spring, said Victor Hill, a spokesman for the Florida Forest Service.

"We've had below average rainfall the last several years in a row, so we are going into this fire season with the anticipation that it will be a busy one," he said.

Local agencies who fight brush fires are already in contact about training and each agency's responsibility in the event of a fire, Hill said. Florida has a year-round threat of brush fires, however peak season generally is from March until June.

Recent rain events may have given residents a false sense of security.

"On the year overall, we're six-inches below normal, and the rain we have had in December — 0.06 of an inch more than we usually have — is not making up for that," NBC-2 Chief Meteorologist Haley Webb said. "As we look at the long-term forecast, the coming few months look like near- to- below-average rainfall.

"As we're a little behind as we go into the dry season, this is not a good scenario."

The region's drought index is pointing to an abnormally dry area in the eastern potion of the county, said Dan Noah, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Noah said he is expecting a "typical fire season."

As of Wednesday, Collier averaged 386 on the Keetch Byram Drought Index, which measures soil moisture on a zero to 800 scale with higher numbers representing increased fire risk. Lee County averaged 493.

Hill admits 2012 was a quieter than other recent fire seasons, pointing to 2011 when Gov. Rick Scott toured a 2,300-acre Golden Gate Estates brush fire. Still, he said he expects 2013 to have a large number of fires. The severity of the fire season will be predicated on conditions and the choices residents make.

Hill urged residents to check the Florida Forest Service's website, www.floridaforestservice.com, for burning tips. He also urged residents to call their local fire department for guidance about burning vegetation, noting that calling ahead is cheaper than having fire officials show up with a violation for not doing it right.

"What is allowed in Golden Gate is not the same thing for Naples proper," he said.

Golden Gate Fire Chief Robert Metzger said his department urges the public to take advantage of the public workshops offered by the Florida Forest Service on brush fire season preparation. Barring that, Metzger asks that residents have excess vegetation safely removed or relocated from their homes and ensure that vegetation around driveways is cut back enough to allow for the passage of fire trucks.

"That's really helpful for us," he said.

Metzger said Collier County was lucky last fire season, but residents and fire officials can't expect the same luck again.

NOAA will also be doing "high resolution localization computer simulations" to forecast fog concerns, which pop up each spring, Noah said.

"We have shallow fog and if you have smoke from a fire mixing with the fog, you can get super fog, which is when you can't see your hand in front of your face," he said.

In January 2012, super fog caused a pileup near Gainesville that killed 10 people. It will be important to get information about the dangers of super fog to residents, particularly those that live in rural areas, Noah said.

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