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Warm, dry winter could mean more bugs, brush fires and berries

While our dry, temperate winter weather is good for enjoying the beach and a boon for strawberries, it’s not all good news. It encourages mosquitoes and raises the chance of wildfires.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

While our dry, temperate winter weather is good for enjoying the beach and a boon for strawberries, it’s not all good news. It encourages mosquitoes and raises the chance of wildfires.

This was the winter we've been expecting.

After two years of bitter cold, we're in the midst of one of the warmest and driest winters in 120 years of record keeping.

And it may feel even warmer than that. The past two winters have been among the coldest on record. At this time last year, the average temperature was about 8 degrees lower.

It's largely what forecasters had anticipated for the season as we are nearing the end of a La Niña cycle, and that means drier and milder conditions.

The weather is good for farmers and tourism, but it promotes wildfires and larger insect populations.

Here's a look at how it has affected the region and what it portends for the near future:

Wildfire conditions

Florida is in the midst of a prolonged drought. And with record low rainfall totals across the state, wildfire experts expect a very busy season. At least as bad as last year's season when 5,136 fires burned nearly 300,000 acres of state and federal land.

"We're right on the verge," said Ronda Sutphen, a wildfire mitigation coordinator with the Florida Forest Service. "If we don't get any rain, we could potentially have some large fires."

Among the biggest concerns are dried lake beds and swamps that can catch on fire and quickly become difficult to combat.

Although wildfires can start any time of year, the greatest potential is in the spring, usually the driest part of the year.

"Typically we get a little rain," Sutphen said. "We haven't gotten that."

Strawberries thriving

Despite a couple of close calls, farmers have avoided any major strawberry crop loses.

Unseasonable warmth, bringing an average temperature of 65.4 degrees at Tampa International Airport, has led to bumper crops — so much so that it's driven down the price farmers can get at the market.

Joe Gude, owner of Brandon Farms, says the low price is going to make it tough to turn much of a profit.

"So far, the outlook doesn't look that great," he said. "It looks pretty bleak."

The big positive: the quality of the berries.

"It's been about as good straight through as I can remember," said Jim Meeks, owner of Parkesdale Farm Market in Plant City, who sells strawberries in addition to citrus and vegetables. "They're big, and they're sweet. The berries are really pretty."

He said any negative he's had from lower prices at the market has mostly been made up by the larger volume.

"I think in the long run, this will be a better year for farmers than last year," he said. "Farmers have a certain amount of pride. They are really proud of what they are growing this year."

Bugs loving this, too

County mosquito control officials all over the Tampa Bay area have found themselves sending out spray trucks much earlier than normal this year. Last year in Hillsborough County, the first truck was sent out to spray for mosquitoes on Feb. 22. This year, two trucks had to go out in January.

"It is very, very unusual to send out spray trucks this early," said Hillsborough County's mosquito control manager Carlos Fernandes. "The cold front didn't last long enough to reduce populations."

This means a potentially bigger problem during the summer months, when mosquitoes are already a pain.

Another threat that could worsen after a warm winter are both European and African honeybees, said Jonathan Simkins, a University of Florida entomologist who works for Insect IQ. The pest control company has already seen killer bee swarms in South Florida, which means queens are splitting off from the hive and starting new bee colonies, increasing bee populations.

"Generally, we don't start seeing that until the middle of March," Simkins said.

Same goes for fire ants, cockroaches, termites and those pesky lovebugs. Practically all insects, Simkins said, will be thriving much earlier and longer after a warm winter.

Rain and temperature breakdowns across Tampa Bay

Tampa International Airport

Normal temperature (Dec-Feb): 62.4
Temperature through Feb. 15: 65.4

14th warmest on record since 1890

Average rainfall total (Dec-Feb. 15): 6.25 in.
Average rainfall total (Dec-Feb. 15): 1.88 in.

Ninth driest

since 1890

St. Petersburg's Albert Whitted Airport

Normal

temperature: 63.26
Temperature this year: 65.5

17th warmest on record since 1914

Average rainfall total: 6.7 in.
Total through Feb. 15: 1.85 in.

Fifth driest on record since 1914

St. Leo

in Pasco

County

Normal

temperature: 62.4
Temperature this year: 62.2

30th warmest since 1895

Average rainfall total: 7.66 in.
Total this year:

1.65 in.

Fourth driest on record since 1895

Brooksville

in Hernando County

Normal

temperature: 61.7
Temperature this year: 63.6

Tied for 11th warmest since 1892

Average rainfall total: 7.28
Total this year:

2.55

Seventh driest since 1892

Source: Ernie Jillson, National Weather Service meteorologist

Warm, dry winter could mean more bugs, brush fires and berries 02/16/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 16, 2012 10:39pm]

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