It's been a dry winter so far in Florida €”
which could mean a bad spring for wildfires, according to press
reports from the state. Gannett's Florida Today
"With no rain to speak of so far in 2012 €” and a
La Ni±a that is keeping the area parched
€” fire officials expect the Space Coast could
soon be up in flames." ("
Nina diverts rain, fuels fire risk
," by Jim Waymer).
When it persists into the summer hurricane season, scientists
say, La Nina €” a period of low sea-surface
temperatures in the Southern Pacific €” tends to
reduce wind shear over the Atlantic basin and helps make for more
and stronger hurricanes (which also, of course, bring rain). But in
winter, La Nina is associated with dry conditions in Florida. "The
jet stream across the southern U.S. is generally weaker and
produces less precipitation," National Weather Service
climatologist Jason Hess told the Florida Times-Union
for little rain could spell trouble for Northeast Florida
Dan Scanlan). "Conditions are not really expected to change much at
all, so just in the past two months we are five inches below the
[rain] level for the winter. €¦ The drought
outlook is severe."
In one recent La Nina year, 1998, Florida had one of its
worst-ever wildfire seasons, with 860,000 acres burned in 10,000
separate fires. Forecasters don't know how bad the coming year will
be, notes Florida Today
€” but according
to the fire service, Florida's five most active fire years in
recent decades have been El Nina years. Since January 1 this year,
, the state has seen 683 wildfires with more than
14,000 acres burned.
Forestry and fire officials are stepping up community outreach
efforts €” including to builders and remodelers,
who can help protect homes and communities by using "firewise"
building and landscaping methods. In an email to
, a wildfire mitigation expert in the Forest
Service's Gainesville office, recommended a pair of online
publications: the National Fire Prevention Association's short
Guide to Landscape and Construction
," and a much longer and
more detailed Florida state publication, "
Risk Reduction in Florida
." A few simple principles
€” such as trimming or removing vegetation near
the home, screening openings, and using rocks or paving rather than
mulch or ground cover near houses €” can go a
long way toward saving houses and neighborhoods when a wildfire
passes through a natural area.
Natural mulch is a fire risk €” but not all
natural mulch is the same. A study by University of Florida,
Florida Forestry Service, and National Institute of Science and
Technology researchers compared the fire spread in four types of
commonly used mulch €” shredded cypress, large
pine bark, small pine bark, and "pine straw" (dry pine needles)
€” under various conditions of dryness ("
and Structural Ignitions from Horticultural Plantings in the
," by Alan Long, Brian Hinton, and
others). Compared to the other three kinds of mulch, pine straw
burned much faster and hotter €” making it a very
risky choice (see videos, above).
Already this year, wildfires have claimed lives in Florida
€” not in homes, however, but on the highway.
Before dawn on the night of January 29, smoke mixed with fog
reduced visibility to zero on Interstate 75 near Gainesville. Ten
people died in the nightmarish pileup that followed ("
on smoky I-75 kills at least 10 people
," by Mike Schneider -