Wildfire alert is concerning


Forest Rangers with the Florida Forest Service conduct a "mop up" of the Boardwalk Fire in Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park Monday, January 30, 2012.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Tuesday, January 31, 2012 at 10:49 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 31, 2012 at 12:45 p.m.

Freeze-dried landscapes and little rain in 60 days has area grasses, shrubs and underbrush ripe for wildfires, one of which has been blamed for the Sunday morning multi-vehicle accidents on Interstate 75 that killed 10 people.

Facts

Alachua County wildfires

Here’s a list of active fires:

• Boardwalk Fire: Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, 62 acres, ignited Saturday, cause unknown.

• County Road 2082 Fire: West of Hawthorne, one-tenth of an acre, cause determined as “other,” notice of violation issued.

A blanket of smoke from the most notorious wildfire, called the Boardwalk Fire in Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, crossed the busy six-lane highway at about 4 a.m. Sunday, causing the series of accidents.

Ever since the tragedy, which involved about 20 vehicles, many firefighters from Alachua and surrounding counties, as well as Florida Forest Service rangers, have been trying to stamp out the blaze.

But now area officials are worried that too much manpower is located at the one fire and smaller ones could explode into major outbreaks unless these firefighters get back to their home stations.

In response, the forest service’s Blackwater District in the Florida Panhandle will send reinforcement to help with the Boardwalk Fire, which will allow other firefighters to get back into strategic positions.

“The Panhandle has gotten more rain than us,” said Ludie Bond, a wildfire mitigation specialist for the Gainesville area.

In the first 29 days of January, there have been 418 fires in Florida, burning a combined 9,267 acres.

Since Dec. 1, Gainesville Regional Airport has received only 1.34 inches of rain in 62 days — 4.45 inches below normal. Ocala has received only 1.15 inches in the same time period — 4.62 inches below normal.

Bond said that county firefighters need to return to their home stations to be ready to attack small wildfires before they explode into large ones, threatening homes and property, as well as causing smoky highways.

At 9 a.m. Monday, the Mar­ion County Mul­ti-Agency Wild­land Task Force — a group comprising of local, state and national firefighting and support agencies — will meet to discuss drought conditions.

The Keetch-Byram drought index for Marion and Alachua is reaching near severe levels. All of Marion and Alachua County has a drought index of in excess of 500 on a scale up to 800.

Every 100 points on the scale is an inch a person must dig into the ground to find moisture. Current readings are nearing severe levels, with still several months of anticipated dry conditions remaining.

Typically around Memorial Day, the summer rains begin.

One of the worst wildfire outbreaks in history occurred in 1998. After extremely dry conditions persisted through spring, wildfires exploded statewide and burned from Memorial Day until after the Fourth of July.

Hundreds of homes were destroyed, several people were killed and more than 500,000 acres were scorched statewide.

Relief could be on the way. The National Weather Service is calling for a chance of rain beginning Wednesday evening and continuing each day through the weekend.

There is a 40 percent chance of rain overnight Wednesday and all day Thursday, with at least a 20 percent chance of rain each day from Friday through Monday.


Joe Callahan can be reached at 867-4113 or at joe.callahan@starbanner.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoeOcalaNews.

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