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 says, "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." (" La 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 (" Forecast for little rain could spell trouble for Northeast Florida ," by 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, reports the Florida Forest Service , 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 Coastal Connection , a wildfire mitigation expert in the Forest Service's Gainesville office, recommended a pair of online publications: the National Fire Prevention Association's short brochure " Firewise Guide to Landscape and Construction ," and a much longer and more detailed Florida state publication, " Wildfire 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 (" Fire Spread and Structural Ignitions from Horticultural Plantings in the Wildland-Urban Interface ," 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 (" Pileup on smoky I-75 kills at least 10 people ," by Mike Schneider - Associated Press).