Cold, dry air leads to fires in area


Published: Tuesday, January 25, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 25, 2005 at 12:43 a.m.
HIGH SPRINGS - The winter weather that led to snowstorms that snarled traffic and canceled flights in the Northeast last week spurred brush fires that charred dozens of acres of farmland in Alachua County this week.
Monday morning proved to be one of the coldest mornings of the winter for the region, with temperatures dipping to 26 degrees in Gainesville.
The cold, dry conditions contributed to a brush fire at NW 102 Avenue and NW 226 Street south of High Springs Monday that blackened 30 acres of grass, said Ed Kennedy, a district chief for Alachua County Fire Rescue.
A resident had been mowing the field early Monday afternoon when a spark from the mower's engine apparently set the field aflame, Kennedy said.
That fire, as well as another 30-acre brush fire near Archer on Sunday, led Kennedy to warn homeowners to avoid even legal outdoor fires while the weather is cold, dry and blustery.
The fire south of High Springs, which firefighters from Alachua County Fire Rescue, High Springs, Newberry and the Division of Forestry responded to, didn't cause any injuries or damage any property, Kennedy said. But the fire endangered a half-dozen houses at its peak, and Kennedy said the homeowners were lucky, given the fire's intensity.
"Conditions are ripe for this kind of thing," Kennedy said, motioning to the blackened acres Monday afternoon. "I watched this fire, in less than one minute, go 50 feet. The weather is going to be like this for the next few weeks, most likely. This is the beginning, not the end."
The wintry weather led the National Weather Service to issue both a red flag warning for potential fires this afternoon and a hard-freeze warning this morning for Alachua County and surrounding areas.
A hard freeze means temperatures were expected to fall below 26 degrees for at least five hours.
The freeze warning stretched across the western Panhandle from Escambia County to Crestview, to parts of west-central and southwest Florida and to the interior of Lake and Volusia counties.
Marathon in the Florida Keys reported 49 degrees, but winds estimated at up to 20 mph made it feel like about 37 degrees.
Andrew Shashy, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Jacksonville, said though the weather in Gainesville the past few days has been "definitely chilly for this time of year," it didn't come close to breaking cold-weather records.
The coldest Jan. 24 in Gainesville saw a low of 18 degrees, set in 1960, and Gainesville's coldest day on record, Jan. 21, 1985, saw a low of 10 degrees.
Shashy said by virtue of Gainesville's place on the globe alone, it's unlikely the region will experience weather like that often. "That's pretty rare," Shashy said. "It happened 20 years ago now, so it's safe to say that we only have record lows of that magnitude every 10 or 20 years."
Gainesville normally sees high temperatures of 66 degrees this time of year and low temperatures of 43 degrees, and Shashy said the Weather Service expected temperatures to climb back into that range by the end of the week.
Florida's fern growers were busy this week cutting their crops so they arrive at florists in time for Valentine's Day.
They escaped any serious damage early Monday, but like Joe Strickland, owner of Alpha Fern in Pierson, most fern growers planned to spend a second night sprinkling their crops with water to form a protective coating of ice.
Citrus growers didn't report any damage from early Monday's cold.
Reggie Brown, manager of the trade group Florida Tomatoes, called it "a very near miss" Monday morning. Readings were near freezing for four hours in the coldest of the big tomato production areas, near Immokalee, roughly halfway between Miami and Tampa.
The cold weather kept tourists along Orlando's International Drive away from the usually busy Wet 'n Wild water park, which closes when the mercury dips below 60 degrees. Many tourists instead stayed warm inside Orlando's many outlet stores.
Blizzard conditions up north caused flight delays and cancellations at some Florida airports. Orlando International had more than two dozen cancellations Monday and nearly 50 flights delayed, said Carolyn Fennell, an airport spokeswoman. Miami International had seven cancellations.
At the Gainesville Airport Monday, all the flights were listed as being on time, and travelers said they hadn't experienced any delays.
Paul Duncan, who was waiting for a flight to Miami Monday morning, said memories of winters in Canada, where he lived before he moved to Gainesville 25 years ago, and memories of record-setting cold snaps in the 1980s made him glad he was heading south rather than north.
"When the newsman says 'hard freeze,' my wife says, 'Let's move farther south,' " Duncan said. "Those of us who moved here from colder areas are often even less tolerant of the cold than people who have lived there their whole lives."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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