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Scientists say spring to be prime for wildfires

A weather phenomenon called La Nina will cause a dry spring, a state climatologist says.

A weather condition far off in the Pacific Ocean will put Florida in peril of wildfires again this spring, the state's climatologist said Thursday.

James O'Brien told agriculture officials to be ready for a dry spring up until about May, based on the Pacific Ocean cooling phenomenon known as La Nina.

"You'd better do your prescribed burns," O'Brien said after briefing Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford, referring to burning brush to eliminate fuel for wildfires.

Starting in May, the threat of drought should diminish in the northern half of the state, said O'Brien, who also is head of Florida State University's Center for Oceanic and Atmospheric Prediction.

In the southern half of Florida, from about Orlando south, whether it is a dry summer will depend on how many tropical storms or hurricanes there are.

The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30.

Hurricane forecaster William Gray at Colorado State University has predicted a "moderate" hurricane season in 2000, with 11 named storms, seven hurricanes and three intense hurricanes.

Crawford said the state is more prepared than it ever has been to fight wildfires.

Florida's dry season began in December, and strike forces already have begun fanning out across the state doing controlled burns, particularly in suburban areas where the woods meet populated regions.

Burning away flammable vegetation in those areas creates a buffer so if there are any later fires in the forest, they should run out of fuel before they threaten homes.

Annual rainfall through the end of November was 7 to 15 inches below normal in North Florida and 6 to 16 inches below normal in Central Florida.

South Florida was between 1.5 and 15 inches above normal, thanks in part to a couple of soaking hurricanes last fall.

"We're gearing up for a busy fire season," Crawford said.

State officials say they won't be caught off-guard the way they were in 1998, when winter flooding built up a thick layer of fuel that caused massive firestorms to burn out of control in the northern part of the state that summer. Wildfires scorched 500,000 acres and damaged more than 300 homes and businesses that year. No one was killed or seriously injured. In all of last year, about 340,000 acres burned statewide, according to Department of Forestry figures.

La Nina is a period of unusually cold water in the Pacific that changes the strength and pattern of the jet stream over North America.

It brings warmer, drier winter weather to the southern half of the nation and more rain and snow to the Pacific Northwest.