Governor Rick Scott has placed Florida under a state of emergency because of recent wildfires and the high potential for increased wildfires to continue.
The fires across the state have burned more than two-and-a-half times more acreage in the first three months of 2017, than during the same period a year ago. Currently, more than 100 active wildfires are scorching over 20,000 acres statewide.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam says Florida hasn't seen a wildfire season this active since 2011. Declaring a state of emergency allows Governor Scott to order deployment of needed firefighting resources, along with distribution of supplies and materials where needed.
“Mostly for Blackwater, we’re responding to moderate fire activity; nothing too terribly out of the ordinary,” said Joe Zwierzchowski at Fish and Wildlife’s Blackwater District, which covers Escambia, Santa Rosa, and Okaloosa counties. He says they’ve been sending personnel and equipment to central and south Florida for the past few weeks.
The peak dry season in Florida normally stretches from late March to late May and even June in some years.
“February and March have both been very dry across the northwest Florida Panhandle,” said Cody Lindsey, Chief Meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Mobile. “February ended up to be about 1.44 inches below normal on precipitation, while March was 2.36 inches below normal.”
The two systems that produced last week’s heavy rains, says Lindsey, did little to alleviate the dry conditions. The region’s also seen above-normal heat early in the year. The Pensacola area has seen a dozen record high temperatures set so far this year.
And we’re not going to be out of the woods, no pun intended, anytime soon. Lindsey says for the next week or so it appears that the chance of rain in the Panhandle is only about 20 percent, but we’re not alone.
“We’re also taking a look at the Climate Prediction Center from NOAA,” Lindsey said. “For the next 6-10 days it’s calling for below-normal precipitation for all of northwest Florida. And the same goes for the next 3-4 weeks as well.”
The extra dry conditions come at a time of the year when northwest Florida goes through its normal lack of moisture.
“Aprils can tend to be dry around here at times, but unfortunately with the lack of rainfall the past couple of months, this can kind of enhance the drought conditions across the Southeast,” said Lindsey.
But the state cannot go it alone in protecting against wildfire. Joe Zwierzchowski at Blackwater says the public’s help is key to helping keep things safe. A point driven home by this week being Wildfire Awareness Week in Florida.
“Maybe they’re going to burn some leaves or debris; keep the [garden] hose handy,” Zwierzchowski advises. “If it’s windier than average, don’t burn; wait a couple of days. And just be mindful, be aware of the situation that things are starting to dry out around here.”
Hunters and campers going out into the woods in large numbers are also urged to use extreme caution when using fire. If you’re grilling at a campground, make sure that the coals are out; drown them, hose them out. And the same thing goes for campfires. Put some water on it, stir it with a shovel, and then with the back of your hand, get close to it. If you can feel any heat, repeat the process until the ashes are cold.