After two hurricanes in 2016, a dry Florida faces a new threat in 2017: Wildfires

Because of worsening drought, most of the Sunshine State is a tinderbox, and wildfires are likely next year, climatologists say.
Published December 20 2016
Updated December 22 2016

Florida was drenched by two hurricanes in 2016, yet it faces a completely different problem in 2017: an increased risk of wildfires this winter.

The state has become so dry in recent months that officials are now concerned about wildfires burning across the peninsula in the coming year.

"If it stays that way like they're predicting it will," Florida Forest Service director Jim Karels said, "then we've got a real potential for an active fire season."

Already the drought that's been plaguing the rest of the southeastern United States — and sparking a massive blaze in Gatlinburg, Tenn., that killed 14 people — is creeping into Florida.

Locally, the Tampa Bay area is dealing with the driest November ever recorded. The historic lack of rainfall extends through all 16 counties covered by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which includes Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and Hernando.

"We got four-one-hundredths of an inch of rain, which is pretty close to none," said Granville Kinsman, who oversees the collection of hydrological data for the agency commonly called Swiftmud.

That's the least amount for a November since record-keeping began in 1915, he said.

Last month was also the driest November on record for the 16 counties covered by the South Florida Water Management District, which oversees water resources from Orlando to Key West.

"During the same year, South Florida moved from record wet conditions in January to record dry weather in November," said that agency's chief engineer, John Mitnik.

The situation is even worse in North Florida. From Pensacola to Tallahassee, the Panhandle is so parched that it has been classified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as being in an "extreme drought."

The area around Tallahassee is slightly better — it's in a "severe drought." From there to Jacksonville and down to the Big Bend area is just "abnormally dry."

"We had a good summer with lots of rain," said David Zierden, a Florida State University professor who serves as the state's official climatologist. But the last major rainfall to hit Florida arrived with Hurricane Matthew in early October, he said. And while a few rainy days in December brought a brief respite, experts said Floridians shouldn't get used to that.

November, which marks the end of the hurricane season, is usually the start of the winter-long dry season in Florida. This winter is expected to be even drier than usual, he said.

The National Weather Service is predicting the next several months will be drier and warmer than in other years because of a minor La Nina — so minor, said Kinsman, that some experts have labeled it "La Nada."

Still, that weather phenomenon could reduce normal rainfall by more than 50 percent through February. That prediction is what has Karels concerned about the threat of wildfires increasing by early next year.

Florida goes through cycles of drought and drenching, but the droughts tend to last longer. Droughts plagued the state from 2006 to 2008, and from 2010 to 2012. Often these prolonged dry spells are accompanied by wildfires.

In 2007, for instance, a lightning strike sparked what became known as the Bugaboo Fire, which swept through more than 100,000 acres in the Okefenokee Swamp, pine plantations and state parks. It was so big it could be seen from space.

The 1998 dry season was so bad that wildfires burned more than 200,000 acres across the state, forcing the evacuation of 35,000 people and prompting then-Gov. Lawton Chiles to encourage residents to pray for rain.

When Hurricane Hermine made landfall just a few miles southeast of St. Marks in September, it was the first hurricane to strike Florida in a decade. State officials were concerned that those who had moved to Florida during those years had never experienced a hurricane before, thus they wouldn't know what to do or how serious the situation was.

The state's newest residents also have little experience with the risks that wildfires bring. In 2008, a controlled burn grew out of control and turned into a 500-acre wildfire that blanketed Interstate 4 and blinded drivers. The result was a 70-vehicle chain-reaction crash in Polk County that left five people dead.

Often when conditions get so dry, state officials respond by imposing severe watering restrictions. For now, though, experts say the dry spell is not disrupting the state's water supply. But they advise caution, just in case.

"People need to be aware of what's happening and water only when necessary," Kinsman said.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

   
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