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More than 100 wildfires scorch Florida, a sign of how dry we are

Wildfires caused low visibility in stretches of Hernando and Citrus counties Sunday. More than 100 active wildfires are burning across the state right now. [Florida Forestry Service via Twitter]
Published Apr. 11, 2017

Last year, Florida was waterlogged. This year, Florida is on fire.

More than 100 active wildfires are burning across the state right now, according to the Florida Forest Service. Twenty-seven of them are scorching more than 100 acres each.

"We're usually not this active this early in the season," the service's assistant fire chief, Ralph Crawford, said Monday.

So it has gone in Tampa Bay, where firefighters spent Monday battling brush fires that flared up in Hernando and Pasco counties. A fast-moving grass fire Friday in St. Petersburg shut down the Interstate 275 interchange at Gandy Boulevard just as rush hour started, tying up traffic for hours.

Since February, wildfires have swept across 68,000 acres of the state, already more than the average acreage burned over the past five years, Crawford said.

"And we're just barely into April," he added. "Usually May is our busiest month."

Heavy rains north of Gainesville last week helped tamp down the wildfire threat in North Florida, said state climatologist David Zierden. But south of Gainesville remains so dry that most of the peninsula is classified as being in a moderate drought. And some counties south of the Tampa Bay area are classified as facing extreme drought conditions.

With no rain forecast statewide for at least another week, "it's going to get worse before it gets better," Zierden predicted.

By far the largest blaze right now is the one known as the Cowbell Fire in the Big Cypress National Preserve, which has spread to more than 8,000 acres about a mile north of Interstate 75. The Cowbell Fire originally covered about 1,000 acres, but on Sunday it exploded, growing more than 7,000 acres in a single day, according to National Park Service officials. It was about 15 percent contained Monday.

A Hernando County brush fire apparently sparked by lightning Saturday had widened to 1,100 acres by Monday. But firefighters said they had the fire 75 percent contained.

The dry conditions mark a sharp contrast to 2016, when torrential rains fell in the late winter and then hurricanes drenched the state. Lake Okeechobee got so full that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent months dumping billions of gallons into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, touching off a thick toxic algae bloom in the St. Lucie estuary over the summer that has had continuing political ramifications.

A weak La Niña weather pattern created much drier winter conditions, Zierden said. Although La Niña fell apart in January, the woods had dried out so much that they were ready for any spark to set them off.

Florida goes through cycles of drought and drenching, but the droughts tend to last longer. Droughts plagued the state from 2006 to 2008 and 2010 to 2012. Wildfires often accompany these prolonged dry spells.

In 2007, for instance, a lightning strike sparked what became known as the Bugaboo Fire, which swept through more than 100,000 acres near the Florida-Georgia border. It was so big it could be seen from space.

The 1998 dry season was so bad that fires burned more than 200,000 acres across the state, forcing the evacuation of 35,000 people and prompting then-Gov. Lawton Chiles to encourage residents to pray for rain.

"April is generally our driest month of the year," Zierden said, noting that the rainy season starts around June 1. "So we've still got a month and a half to go."

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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