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Drought-weary pray for rain

Published Sep. 27, 2005

Citrus has the second worst drought index level in the state and the same number of brush fires (about 80) as last year.

The drought has reached such dangerous proportions locally that officials are praying for relief.

Leading the prayer at a County Commission utilities workshop Tuesday, Commissioner Jim Fowler concluded with the plea: "And Lord, if you could spare it, we could use a little rain."

He wasn't kidding.

Citrus County has the second worst drought index level in the state, with a rate of 727 on a scale in which 800 is desertlike conditions.

Only Pinellas County is worse off, with a drought index of 735.

The drought index is a measure of water in the ground, and a high rating does not necessarily mean there will be more fires, said Keith Mousel, a resource administrator for the state Division of Forestry. It means once a fire gets started, the flames will probably spread more quickly and burn longer before firefighters can stop them, he said.

"The fact is when that drought index gets above 600, the real big problem is that prolonged burning takes place," Mousel said. "A fire could burn for days or weeks because it's so dry."

The Southwest Florida Water Management District's northern region, a seven-county area that includes Citrus, has received only a third of the rainfall it usually gets, Swiftmud spokesman Michael Molligan said.

From January through April, the area averaged 4.4 inches of rain. The historical average for those months is 12.69 inches of rain.

The water levels of the lakes in the same area are about 4 feet below the normal yearly low, Molligan said, and the readings of the Floridan Aquifer levels at Chassahowitzka and Inverness are at all-time lows.

Even with a record dry season, the number of brush fires has stayed about the same, said Mike Schlaudraff, director of the county Fire Safety Division.

Since March 15, when a blaze swept through 550 acres just outside Crystal River, the county has had about 80 brush fires, he said.

"It was the same in 1998 and in 1999," Schlaudraff said. "As soon as the dry season hits, we go through the same thing every time."

With little rain, the dry underbrush in the county has turned into tinder. In early April, forestry workers halted all control burns because the risk became too great, Mousel said.

Because of the watering restrictions, workers cannot water down the dry areas to try to prevent a fire, Schlaudraff added.

"I even put out a memo (saying), "Don't wash the trucks until they get really bad,' " he said.

All they can do, he said, is react to the fires as quickly and decisively as possible.

Since the county imposed its burn ban March 14 _ predating the statewide burn ban by more than two months _ county Fire Services has called on three districts to respond to each blaze. Normally two districts handle the job.

The difference means up to 10 trucks respond to any fire instead of four or six. The extra tools and staff have kept those 80 brush fires from reaching the proportions of the 550-acre Crystal River blaze.

"We try to jump on it right away so we can keep it as small as we can," Schlaudraff said.