Officials applaud residents on low number of wildfires

Published: Thursday, January 8, 2009 at 2:47 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 8, 2009 at 2:47 p.m.

Forestry officials are complimenting North Florida residents on the limited number of wildfires reported so far this season and remain hopeful that the season will remain uneventful.

During 2008, the Florida Division of Forestry calculated that 2,894 wildfires burned nearly 106,000 acres across the state. In recent years wildfires have raged across miles of land and forced evacuations in several North Florida counties. This week conditions are ideal for a fire to get out of control, according to forestry spokeswoman Ludie Bond.

"We are extremely fortunate that people are really paying attention and so we have had a fairly low number of fires this week," Bond said Thursday. "The situation now is that the humidity has dropped to 25 percent and we are expecting wind gusts in the 23 to 27 mile per hour range, and that can be considered extreme weather conditions for fires, so it's possible that we would have erratic fire behavior and those are the hardest fires to fires because they are so unpredictable."

In a news release, Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Charles H. Bronson said the combination of high winds, low humidity and below-average rainfall since the end of summer have "significantly increased the state's wildfire risk."

The now three-year-long drought in North Florida is getting blamed for the Keetch-Byram Drought Index falling to a statewide average of 511. The index scale begins at zero to describe saturated conditions and tops out at 800 to describe desert-like conditions. This week's average of 511 is "more than double the normal drought index this time of year," according to the release.

"We are asking both residents and visitors alike to be careful with any outdoor burning and to check with their local officials to determine if there is a burn ban in effect in their area," Bronson said.

Alachua County has issued a ban on outdoor burning and forestry officials have only been issuing a very limited number of permits for controlled burns, Bond said.

"It's unfortunate that this is happening now because this is the prescribed burn season," Bond said.

Traditionally foresters have conducted controlled burns in forests during the winter months to dispose of potential fuels on the forest floors like fallen pine needles. Also, trees are normally dormant during the cooler weather and not subject to as much damage from a fast moving fire as they would be in an active growing season.

"As conditions improve, we will be looking at issuing more prescribed permits, but as always this is something we do on a case-by-case basis," Bond said.

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