Wildfire season could be hot, damaging in Florida — thanks to La Niña

This wildfire season in Florida, Smokey Bear may be in for a workout.

A warm, dry winter linked to the La Niña weather pattern has turned the state into a tinderbox. And the conditions have come on the tail of a very wet and fecund El Niño that spurred lots of plant growth, meaning there’s plenty of fuel to burn. Already, hundreds of fires have scorched the state, including a 7,500-acre fire that swept across the Picayune Strand state forest in Collier County last week and wafted the smell of smoke across South Florida.

With temperatures expected to remain above average, state officials are increasingly worried that Florida could see a repeat of 1998, when wildfires engulfed more than a half million acres, forced the evacuation of all of Flagler County and destroyed at least 50 houses in a single night in Port St. Lucie.

This is eerily similar to the 1998 fire season which was one of the worst in decades.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam

“This is eerily similar to the 1998 fire season, which was one of the worst in decades,” Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said this week. “We are coming off of the heels of a very wet 2016, which all over the state caused a tremendous amount of growth of underbrush that, when it stops raining, becomes significant fuels for wildfires.”

So far this year, the state has tallied more than 750 fires, consuming over 25,000 acres. While that’s relatively little to date, forecasters expect more dry months ahead. Weather conditions also have so far prevented land managers from conducting many of the controlled burns that help limit the severity of fires.

Last year, with so much rain, the state performed controlled burns on just 200,000 acres, Putnam said. But that’s down from an annual average of about 2 million acres. At Everglades National Park, park staff burned just 92,000 out of 250,000 acres targeted. Now, they won’t be able to burn anymore without more rain, said James Sullivan, the park’s acting fire chief.

Controlled burns are used to rid forests of dried brush and, in the park’s case, to establish breaks that help firefighters control wildfires that are a necessary part of the Everglades habitat, as well as other Florida ecosystems, and needed for much of its plants and animals to survive. Areas of the park should burn every three to eight years to maintain a healthy ecosystem.

In pinelands, fires help keep the canopy open and airy so plants that live in the crevices of the limestone floor, and feed wildlife, can thrive. Prairies need fire to thin grass to keep water flowing and kill exotic plants.

But this year’s La Niña has set the stage for a potentially fiery spring. In addition to higher temperatures, the recent strong winds dried out plants and can fan fires. Last week’s Picayune fire spread quickly, destroying two homes and leading the Florida Highway Patrol to shut down a stretch of Alligator Alley overnight. The week before, with winds blowing at 30 to 40 mph, a fire raced across nearly 700 acres north and south of the Tamiami Trail and within a mile of Everglades National Park.

The good news is forecasting fires in recent years has significantly improved thanks to a network of satellites providing data to better predict weather that spread fires. Minute-by-minute images can even let forecasters spot flames before authorities can on the ground.

When fires spread across four states in parts of the west this month, killing six and forcing thousands to evacuate, National Weather Service fire forecasters spotted flames in Texas and Oklahoma and alerted firefighters on the ground before any 911 calls came in, incident meteorologist Kurt Vanspeybroeck said in an email. Faster and better communication can also put information like weather briefings and satellite images in the field almost instantaneously.

“The speed and widespread use of wireless [and] mobile devices to communicate should not be undersold,” he wrote.

The satellites, which could be part of the reported cuts to NOAA proposed by the White House, have also dramatically improved models predicting the drought index, which looks at ground temperatures and rainfall and is a key tool in forecasting fires.

Last week, the index lit up parts of Collier County where fires occurred. The same levels occurred in Highlands County and parts of Okeechobee, Osceola, St. Lucie and Indian River counties and should serve as a warning, Vanspeybroeck said.

One forecaster went a step further and looking at historical data, threaded together humidity levels and wind speeds to correlate and pinpoint areas of extreme drought conditions and create a red flag index, said Paul Witsaman, a NOAA program manager.

In Oklahoma, that red flag index, it just lined up perfectly.

Paul Witsaman, a NOAA program manager

“In Oklahoma, that red flag index, it just lined up perfectly,” he said.

That kind of information can allow firefighters to get a head start, moving bulldozers and other big and slow equipment into sometimes remote places. It also helps keep firefighters safe, the meteorologists said, providing warnings about incoming fronts that might suddenly turn the fire in a different direction.

“The input’s getting better so the output is getting better,” Witsaman said. “Before it was like they were picking individual sites and observing how much rain occurred over the last 24 hours. Now they’re using this mosaic and continuous precipitation, so it makes really better data.”


The number of wildfires that occurred statewide so far this year

On Friday, severe drought conditions spread across much of the state, from Orlando south.

With chances for wildfire above average, land managers and state officials have already taken steps to be ready. Everglades National Park is asking for enough personnel and equipment to man the park around the clock with two to three engines, and for a beefed-up aviation unit for aerial assaults, Sullivan said. The South Florida Water Management District last year burned nearly 30,000 acres, using a helicopter to launch pingbong balls packed with chemicals that explode to start controlled burns.

State firefighters are staying close to stations and not being sent to other states like North Carolina where they helped fight fires last year, Putnam said. His office is also asking homeowners to take steps now to cut back brush around houses and clear gutters and roofs, particularly in neighborhoods that are near woods or that are scattered with vacant lots where fires can start.

“I wish the conditions were such that there was just one region we could focus,” he said. “But unfortunately, with 60 fires going around the state just today alone, we have to be pretty strategic in how we move assets around.”