Counties caught in a drought crossfire

Charlotte and Sarasota counties may be in more trouble as persistent dry conditions create greater susceptibility to wildfires, says Patrick Mahoney, a wildfire mitigation specialist for the Florida Forest Service.

According to Florida Forest Service, there have been 1,063 wildfires and 16,295 acres burned across Florida since Jan. 1. Among them, a fire shut down the portion of Interstate 75 known as Alligator Alley for nearly seven hours before reopening at 10:30 a.m. Monday and a 60-acre fire in Rotonda required the combined efforts of firefighters from Sarasota to Marco Island to help Charlotte County contain the blaze.

“Conditions are primed for wildfires with low humidity, high winds and dry conditions,” said Scott Lane, Englewood Fire District chief. “We’ve had fires here. We’re fortunate not to get bigger fires.”

Charlotte and Sarasota counties fall under the five-county Myakka River district. The Keetch-Byram Drought Index measures activity from zero to 800 — the higher the number, the drier the conditions.

“We’re at a 613 drought index, driest in the district,”Mahoney said. “We’re getting drier each day. Our fire index is high to very high.”

Area fire districts along with the Florida Forest Service are doing what they can to stem wildfire activity with controlled fires, mitigating underbrush, raising awareness and educating residents through the Firewise Program.

“Years ago, they used to have problems with controlled fires,” Lane said. “Prior, they hired private companies. Now the government took over, they have their own people.”

Experts say they expect dry conditions this time of year. As the Keetch-Byram Drought Index approaches a certain threshold, controlled fires and mitigation are no longer options.

“Anytime it goes over 500 dry index, we don’t do any controlled fires or mitigation,” Mahoney said. “We only allow others who are certified (to do controlled fires.) Noncertified (can do controlled fires) if weather permits.”

The biggest man-made causes of fires, according to Capt. Susan Pearson of Sarasota County Emergency Services, are arson and carelessness. The biggest natural culprit is lightning strikes.

“We have so much heavy brush in the area,” said Michael Frantz, fire marshal in North Port. “We’ve got extremely dry conditions. We’re ripe for a rapid spread. I think the conditions will persist for a while.”

As more homes are being built into rural and wooded areas, experts are stressing fire-wise education for residents so the effect from wildfires is minimal.

“Rural areas are more at risk because there’s more vegetation and it’s sparsely populated,” Lane said.

Pearson said more homes in the woodlands increase the risk for damage.

“We’ve got a lot of developments in wooded areas,”said Charlotte County Fire Chief Dennis DiDio. “We try to make it a fire-wise community when we work with developers.”

Despite the increasing drought activity, DiDio said he has not seen more fires.

“I expected to see more fires — not just the ones on Bermont Road (east of Punta Gorda) and Rotonda,” said DiDio.

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About Tom

Tom Chang is a freelance journalist with a background in multimedia journalism and web publishing. He is currently pursuing his Masters in Journalism and Media Studies from the University of South Florida St.Petersburg. He graduated in 2004 with a Bachelors Degree in Mass Communications at USF Tampa. Tom's interests include a little bit of everything from entertainment to sports. He also wishes to delve into creative writing writing sci-fi/fantasy stories. Tom was recently the Online Editor for USF St. Petersburg's the Crow's Nest, he joined the staff in January 2010 where he started freelance writing, photographing, copy editing and later became a staff writer. Tom’s freelance experience in journalism amassed a wide range of companies including Creative Loafing, The Focus Magazine, Lutz News, Examiner.com, and Tampa Tribune.
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