Why so windy Saturday? High gusts fueled fires

Published: Monday, March 4, 2013 at 1:24 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 4, 2013 at 1:24 p.m.

Saturday morning started out like most any other late winter morning in Marion County. It was cool, and breezy, as a cold front marched into Florida.

But as this cold front collided with Florida’s warmer air mass, it created a stronger than usual pressure gradient — or strong wind, in layman’s terms — between the two air masses.

By afternoon, between noon and 6 p.m., a northwesterly wind increased to a sustained 20 mph, occasionally gusting up to 37 mph, pushing southeast toward the Atlantic Ocean.

All it would take was a spark — usually manmade from a burn barrel, campfire, burn pit or other source — to ignite the freeze-dried landscape. And the wind would do the rest.

With all those ingredients in place, at 11 a.m. Saturday, small fires began popping up all over the county. Fortunately, firefighters kept the first batch under control.

By Saturday afternoon, however, the conditions worsened. A spark of unknown origin ignited the Ocala National Forest south of Salt Springs, just west of State Road 19. Driven by wind, the fire — which has been named the “Hopkins Prairie” fire — raced east toward Lake George, jumping SR 19.

By Sunday afternoon, the blaze had charred 1,918 acres and destroyed 24 buildings, including 10 homes. Officials say 120 firefighters from the U.S. Forest Service, Florida Forest Service and Marion County Fire Rescue have been battling the blaze ever since. Though 10 homes have been lost, officials said 100 homes were saved.

“It was definitely a wind-driven fire,” said Ludie Bond, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fire Service.

National Weather Service meteorologist Kate Guillet said though the weather event itself was not unusual for this time of year, the wind speed ahead of the front was stronger than normal.

“And the winds were widespread,” she said of the steady wind that pushed, primarily from northwest to southeast, across the peninsula.

Many fires erupted throughout central Florida, including a 1,000-acre blaze near Ormond Beach called the Durrance fire. Another in Canaveral Groves in Broward County killed a pregnant horse.

Bond said Hopkins Prairie firefighters spent Monday getting ready for an anticipated reversal in wind direction on Tuesday. As the front retreats back to the north, high winds are expected this afternoon.

But instead of wind moving toward the southeast, like on Saturday, the wind Tuesday is expected to head toward the northeast.

That means firefighters from every available agency targeted all hot spots near homes on Monday. They added plow lines on the northern fringes in preparation of 20 mph wind.

“Weather is the primary indicator of how a fire will behave,” Bond said, adding that firefighters rely on forecasts to determine wind, humidity and other factors.

Based on weather forecasts, fire officials can determine their needs “today” to protect the community “tomorrow,” Bond noted.

“We have to be ready,” she noted.

Winter is typically the driest time of the year in Marion County. But this particular winter has been extremely dry, especially since Jan. 1. In the first 63 days of the year, there has been less than two inches of rain at Ocala’s official gauge. That’s nearly five inches below normal.

When it comes to the drought index, Marion County’s average is currently at 463 on a scale up to 800. Officials say that every 100 points equals an inch a person must dig into the ground to find moisture. The higher the number on the scale, the worst the drought conditions. Any reading above 200 or 300, depending on the time of year, is a concern to area wildfire officials.

“The reading (in the Ocala National Forest) is 600,” said Bond, adding the extreme drought conditions also contributed to the fire’s speed.

U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Susan Blake said automatic federal spending cuts that were triggered Friday after the political “sequester” impasse did not affect the agency. All of its typical manpower was sent to the scene because “this is all about human safety,” Blake noted.

Marion Fire-Rescue spokeswoman Jessica Greene said Monday that six other fires erupted on Saturday throughout the county:

• At 11 a.m., Marion County units responded to a several-acre fire at a home in Weirsdale, 16050 SE 156th Place Road.

• At 1:28 p.m., a five-acre fire at Magnolia Drive and Magnolia Drive Terrace in Ocklawaha consumed about 10 acres and was called under control at 2:54 p.m.

• At 2:30 p.m., another Ocala National Forest fire broke out at 2256 NE 145th Ave. Road.

• Also at 2:30 p.m., Marion County handled a quarter-acre fire at Northeast 39th Court and 175th Street Road in Citra.

• At 2:45 p.m., a five-acre brush fire broke out at 5850 SW College Road in the Winding Acres subdivision.

• At 4:22 p.m., a barrel burn ignited a small fire at 13449 SW 112th Place Road.

On Sunday, there were only a few small fires, Greene said. Bond said the Hopkins Prairie fire was the only blaze the Florida Forest Service battled on Sunday in Marion County.

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

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