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Fire threat moves in as rain clears out

(ran SS edition of Metro & State)

Weeks of dry and breezy weather have put forestry officials on the alert as the potential for fires increases with the lack of rain.

"We're at a precautionary level now," said Mike Perry, State Division of Forestry area supervisor. "After all the rain we had last year and early this year, most people think it's too wet to burn. But upland areas are really dry compared to a month or two ago."

While water levels remain high in low and swampy areas, he said, dried out vegetation on higher land has become good tinder for brush and wildfires.

Last weekend, a brush fire fanned by winds gusting to 30 mph burned about 30 acres of palmettos and pine trees near Gandy Boulevard and Interstate 275, which is a mixture of public and private property. The southbound interstate exit onto Gandy was closed for several hours because of smoke.

Winds spread the blaze by blowing embers past dirt barriers fire officials created to stop it from spreading.

Strong winds again played a role when a brush fire broke out Wednesday in Seminole. About 4 acres were scorched near 121st Avenue N and 85th Street. The fire threatened a neighborhood across the street, but firefighters stopped flames at the curb.

Perry said officials have had problems with fires before in the Gandy area because people have easy access to it and often use off-the-road vehicles there. The cause of the Gandy fire had not been determined, but investigators think juveniles ignited the Seminole blaze.

"The fires we're seeing now are ones caused by careless burning and children playing with fire materials" he said. "We haven't really had any serious lightning strike fires, because it's usually raining with the lightning and that makes it too wet."

The wild land fire season starts in December or after the first hard frost, which kills vegetation and makes it flammable, and lasts until June 30. El Nino rains helped limit the fires until recently.

Except for a trace in scattered showers, little rain has wet the ground in almost a month. According to the extended forecast, no rain is expected until late next week.

Along with the lack of rain, humidity levels have been very low. These conditions, coupled with strong winds, create fire dangers.

"The lighter fuels like grasses, palmettos and dead vegetation are very dry," Perry said. "We're in good shape so far with the number of fires we've had, but the fire potential is there because it isn't wet on the high ground.

"When you get winds of 15 to 20 mph, gusting to 25 mph, unstable atmospheric conditions with cumulus clouds, humidity of 30 to 40 percent and high temperatures, any ignition source could start a spot fire that spreads."

As a precaution, forestry officials are encouraging "prescribed burns" to clear out dead vegetation and other flammable material that would provide fuel for major wild land fires. Perry said this is a good time for such controlled fires because low areas are still wet, which would prevent muck fires or similar problems.

Controlled burns at Weedon Island State Park and other area parks have been conducted recently.

Fire officials offer this advice to prevent brush fires:

+ Never leave a fire unattended, and keep a fire extinguisher nearby.

+ Be aware of wind conditions.

+ Keep fires enclosed in a non-combustible container, covered with mesh or a grill.

+ No open, above-ground burning is allowed without a state permit.

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