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Cold weather brings freeze warnings and potential for brush fires

Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!

In case you haven't stepped outside, here's a news flash. It's cold, people.

Temperatures will be 15 to 20 degrees colder than they usually are this time of year through Monday, according to the National Weather Service. And freeze warnings were posted for most of the Tampa Bay region Saturday night. Dry air coupled with high winds have also heightened a brush fire threat.

A mass of cold air called scary technical words like "arctic" and "high pressure" has swept from Canada to Florida.

"That's usually where our cold air masses originate from this time of year," said Bay News 9 meteorologist Brian McClure. "In January and February, you tend to get more of the arctic air sinking a little farther south, coming down through Canada and the United States."

Hillsborough, Pasco, Polk, Hardee, Charlotte, DeSoto, Highlands, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota counties are under a freeze warning until 9 a.m. today. Citrus, Hernando, Levy and Sumter counties were under a hard freeze warning, which is worse. A hard freeze watch will continue for those counties into Monday morning.

"We live in a semitropical climate, so what tends to happen is we have a lot of very sensitive plants and fruits in certain areas," said McClure. "When they differentiate and they say a 'hard freeze,' that means temperatures will stay below freezing for multiple hours."

Most growers know how to handle the cold snaps. At Beasley Farm in Brooksville, owner Joann Beasley has already harvested her summer crops. The things in the ground now — broccoli, collard greens, Swiss chard, radishes and cabbage — should hold up better in the cold.

"I just kind of go with the flow," Beasley said Saturday. "I have several acres, so I can't cover everything. I just hope my cold weather crops will be OK."

Workers at Parkesdale Farms in Plant City prepared Saturday to spend four nights keeping a close eye on the crop of strawberries. The farmers actually freeze the berries, ensuring they don't get colder than 32 degrees.

"We go out and make sure everything is working, the sprinklers, the pumps and all that kind of stuff, and we just put the thermometers out there and keep driving around, and as soon as it gets cold enough, we turn on the water and it makes a little blanket," said Jim Meeks, who sells berries at the farm. "If you just walked off and left it and didn't put any water on it, it would get colder."

In Pasco County, temperatures were expected to bottom out in the low 30s, but the wind chill will make it feel more like 18 to 28 degrees early this morning. Hernando County was due for overnight lows in the 20s and a wind chill as low as 14 degrees.

Cold weather shelters will be open this weekend in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties. Things will warm up a bit through the week, but don't pack away the sweater just yet. Highs in the 50s are expected through Wednesday, reaching the mid 60s by Friday.

And after that?

"We might get another shot next weekend," said McClure. "This is the story that just keeps going and going. It's going to be cold pretty much every single night."

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

Cold weather brings freeze warnings and potential for brush fires 01/02/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 2, 2010 9:35pm]

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