As revelers gear up for a long weekend of grilling, frying, and firework-watching, authorities hope a rash of recent brush fires will remind residents of Tampa Bay's dangerously dry conditions.
Pinellas County's fire alert level is high, or orange on a scale that ranges from green to red, making it one of the driest areas in the state. Pasco, Hillsborough and Manatee counties are at a moderate level.
Holiday fireworks only serve to heighten that risk.
"You never know where they're going to land, those hot embers, when they come down," St. Petersburg Fire Rescue Lt. Fire Marshal Steve Lawrence said.
The fact that celebratory fireworks outside of authorized displays are illegal never seems to stop revelers.
As Tropical Storm Arthur moves north, it will release the dry air it's been holding in a rotation for several days, sending increased thunderstorms toward Tampa Bay. Those could present a hazard as forecasters predict "excessive lightning" Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Lightning was blamed for several brush fires Tuesday, including one near the Hillsborough-Manatee county line that closed southbound lanes of Interstate 75 for hours. In Hernando County, a 62-acre blaze west of Highway 19 required air support to extinguish, and three separate fires at the Brooker Creek Preserve in East Lake threatened a subdivision before they were brought under control.
Those fires were quickly managed by local agencies and the Florida Forest Service, which controls them rather than putting them out immediately in an effort to burn up "fuel."
"Twigs, trees, shrubs, and things like that out there, as far as we're concerned, are fuel," said East Lake Fire Rescue Chief Tom Jamison. "Dead stuff ... likes to burn."
And this time of year, fuel is abundant. Although afternoon showers are a near-daily occurrence, they aren't enough.
"It can be pretty heavy, but it only last for 20 or 30 minutes," Lawrence said. "That's just not enough to penetrate the ground soil and get everything as wet as you think."
When "fuel" is dry, a spark or dropped cigarette could be enough to cause a brush fire that spans tens of acres.
The threat is particularly dire in "urban interface" areas, where woodlands with plenty of brush butt up against subdivisions or towns. Jamison said East Lake has more of those areas than, say, southern Pinellas County, and his teams are gearing up for the holiday weekend.
"Historically, for us and for other fire departments that have these wildland areas and urban interface, it's not unusual to get several fires that we have to go put out because people are reveling in their pyrotechnic revelry," Jamison said.
Contact Claire Wiseman at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804. Follow her @clairelwiseman.