Florida drought likely worse than in 1998

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State drought likely worse than in 1998

300 wildfires on 11,000 acres already have been fought in 2001 `The area is drier, and the fires are starting earlier than in 1998.' -- STANLEY RISK, Division of Forestry spokesman

BY MIKE SCHNEIDER Associated Press

ORLANDO -- Parched fields, brown tree leaves and dry lake beds are becoming familiar sights all over Florida as the state enters its fourth year of a severe drought.

Low humidity and recent freezing temperatures are also bringing back another familiar vision in Florida: wildfires. Forestry officials say conditions for fires igniting are even worse now than in 1998 when blazes scorched 500,000 acres across the state, leveling houses and businesses.

Already this year, the Division of Forestry has battled 300 fires, covering about 11,000 acres. That's double the number of fires and five to 10 times the amount of acreage at the same time in previous years.

Heading into the fire season, which lasts from January to June, Central Florida and the Panhandle have rainfall deficits of more than 15 inches.

``The area is drier and the fires are starting earlier than in 1998,'' said Stanley Risk, a Division of Forestry official in Tallahassee. ``Unless the weather changes, it may be worse than in 1998.''


It has not been this dry in Florida for 15 years, Risk said. Officials with the St. Johns River Water Management District, which governs water policy for Central and North Florida, have described the lack of rainfall as the worst in at least a century.

Forty-five of the state's 67 counties are above 500 on the Keetch-Byram Drought Index, meaning they're experiencing drought-like conditions. The index is measured on a scale of 0 to 800.

Freezing temperatures around the state have exacerbated the problem.

``Lakes are dry. Swamps are dry,'' said Jim Karels, fire chief of the Division of Forestry. ``We have a lot of volatile, flashy fuels out there.''

Things have gotten so bad that state Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford has pleaded with Floridians to stop burning yard trash to reduce the fire risk.


Already, water officials are cracking down on water usage.

The St. Johns River Water Management District last week limited landscape watering and carwashing to two days in Lake, Marion, Orange, Seminole and Volusia counties.

South Florida Water Management District officials implemented equally tough restrictions in Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach counties.

``It's a pretty severe drought,'' said Jeff Cole, a spokesman for the St. Johns River Water Management District. ``We've been in a drought for the past three years and the past year has been the most severe.''

How severe? Marion, Lake, Orange, Polk, Seminole, Volusia counties have had rainfall of 10 inches to 26 inches below normal. Groundwater levels in Orange County have declined by almost nine feet for the past year while levels in the other counties have declined by three feet to four feet.


The lack of rainfall and cold temperatures have produced a dry, parched landscape in Central Florida that is tinder to any sparks.

But fire officials say they're better prepared to fight the fires than they were in 1998.

For one thing, state lawmakers have given them a bigger budget to work with. Since 1998, the Division of Forestry's budget has increased about $15 million to about $47 million.

The money allowed the Forestry Division to add about 300 new personnel and purchase 30 new pieces of equipment, including bulldozers, pickup trucks and five new helicopters. In 1998, the forestry division had a lot of antiquated equipment, including bulldozers that were 15 years old.


``We were sitting there with a lot of old equipment,'' Risk said. ``It was a combination of bad weather and catching us with our pants down and that really got us.''

Since the fires of 1998, the Division of Forestry also has signed agreements with the U.S. Forest Service, the Florida National Guard and the Florida Division of Emergency Management that will allow for quicker cooperation from the other agencies.

Most importantly, the Division of Forestry has deployed four six-member fire management teams that conduct proscribed burns and eliminate potential fire fuel.

The teams are located in Bonifay, Bunnell, Gainesville and Punta Gorda.

No matter how well-prepared they are, fire officials realize there's only one thing that will really help: several days of heavy rains.

``I'm hoping we can get the rains. I'm an optimist in that way,'' Karels said. ``But based on how we build the fire season, the worse is yet to come.''


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), January 14, 2001

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