COUNTY'S DROUGHT INDEX HIGHEST IN STATE
Officials hope rain cuts risk of brush fires
Published: Saturday, January 10, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 10, 2004 at 12:43 a.m.
Forestry officials are hoping Friday's rain helped drop Alachua County's drought index from its place as highest in the state.
In the first eight days of January, Florida Division of Forestry firefighters extinguished 10 brush fires in the five-county Waccasassa District, which includes Alachua, Gilchrist, Levy, Marion and Putnam counties, said Rick Dolan, forest area supervisor. That's a quarter of all the wildfires reported in Florida so far this year.
A cold front that crawled through Florida with very little rain or fanfare on Tuesday brought dry, breezy and chilly weather - perfect conditions for brush fires, Dolan said.
"Behind the front you have those cool temps and lower humidities, which makes fire weather a lot worse for us," he said.
The drought index in Alachua County was 601 on Thursday, with some parts as low as 288 and some as high as 718. The index runs from 0, meaning the ground is saturated, to 800, indicating desert-like conditions.
A winter drought index of between 541 and 800 indicates severe conditions, according to the Division of Forestry. Normal conditions range from 181-400.
The western and central parts of Alachua County were the driest.
Levy County also scored high on the drought index, with an average of 587 and a range of 361 to 715.
The drought index hasn't been this high in at least a year, Dolan said.
Only 0.47 inches of rain fell in December - only about one-fifth the normal rainfall of 2.56 inches, according to the National Weather Service in Jacksonville.
An average of 50 inches of rain falls in Gainesville each year. Last year was 1.74 inches below normal.
This year got off to a dry start, with only 0.06 inches of rain in the first eight days of January. Normally, nearly an inch of rain will fall in that time span. Each day without rain helps the drought index climb higher.
A steady rain on Friday could have improved the situation. But by late Friday night, less then 0.10 inch of rain had fallen at the Gainesville Regional Airport.
And the accompanying cold front will again bring cold and dry air, with a low temperature of 30 expected tonight and Sunday night. Highs won't climb much above 50 degrees - far below the normal high of 66.
The lack of rainfall during the past month or so also has some farmers worrying about their crops.
Leo Polopolus of Arcadian Farms in High Springs said the dry weather is probably affecting the dormant peach crop.
Although the trees won't even bloom until February, rainfall affects their overall health, Polopolus said.
"We want (the trees) to get ready to push out a big bloom." Polopolus said. "That's the biggest thing we have to be concerned about."
Helping nature out
Cold weather - December temperatures were below normal, and January is predicted to be chilly - also doesn't help the wildfire situation, officials say.
A freeze kills the grass, which makes it easier to ignite, Dolan said.
But while the weather increases the risk of wildfires, it's also a good time to do controlled burns, said Annaleasa Winter, a wildfire mitigation specialist at the Division of Forestry.
Controlled burns are done to eliminate grasses and other vegetation that could fuel a wildfire, Winter said.
Forestry officials plan where they want to burn and then plow lines around the area, which helps contain the fire, she said. The cold, dry weather makes it easier to ignite the grass.
"Any time we get a chance to burn it's a good thing because we're removing the fuel stacking up around homes," Winter said.
In the Waccasassa District, Division of Forestry officials are too busy concentrating on wildfires to do controlled burns, Dolan said. But in less busy times, they do "mitigation work" - which includes controlled burns, mowing, chopping and plowing fire lines around urban areas.
And they'd like residents to help by learning how to burn.
Most brush fires start when residents burn trash and the fire gets out of control, Dolan said.
"The main thing in preventing the fires from getting away is to burn soon after a rain," Dolan said. "Make sure to burn on days with higher humidities and light winds."
A lot of people don't know the burning rules, he added.
When fire officials see someone burning illegally, or respond to a trash fire that's gone out of control, they usually warn them and educate them about the proper way to burn yard trash. But if the resident does it again, he might have to appear in court and could get fined, Dolan said.
Kathy Ciotola can be reached at (352) 338-3109 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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