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Drought Deepens, Fire Hazard Increases in NWFL


Officials with the Florida Forest Service are warning residents in the Panhandle of the increasing danger of wildfires because of a continued lack of rainfall.

Rain totals in Northwest Florida have been at zero, says Jeff Huffman -- a meteorologist at the Florida Public Radio Emergency Network. And that’s doing a number on crops and lawns, as well as ratcheting up the threat of wildfire.

“This ridge of high pressure has been very persistent; we haven’t had a drop of rain now in most areas in over a month,” said Huffman. “And much of the Panhandle [is] officially in a moderate drought – even some sections [are] now considered a severe drought. I expect numbers to continue to get worse in the next week or so.”

That ridge of high pressure has been residing in the upper levels of the atmosphere. Huffman says that’s what has been steering tropical activity in the Atlantic, away from the U.S. coastline.

“Remember, both [Hurricanes] Dorian and Humberto turned north; not able to move further west,” Huffman said. “So we certainly have had an absence, not only of the tropical activity but because of this ridge of high pressure that’s nearby -- that sinking air, that suppressing air has kept the thunderstorms that we typically get this time of year from bubbling up.”

The forecast calls for continued dry, hot weather at least until the end of this week. Huffman doesn’t think the end will come suddenly, unless there’s a tropical system that originates in the Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico.

“It is important to note that early October – as we have seen in recent years – that’s the favorable time frame for a system to come in our direction from the Gulf,” Huffman said. “But right now I do see some gradual change in the weather pattern that will allow tropical moisture to at least move in, starting potentially this weekend but more likely next week.”

The area most impacted by drought conditions in Florida is split between two forestry centers – Blackwater, serving Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties -- and Chipola, which covers Bay, Calhoun, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, Walton and Washington.  Authorizations for acreage burns will not be issued by Blackwater, and those burning debris piles must have suitable heavy equipment on scene.

“This time of year we typically run through a dry period in October; September is usually not one of our driest months,” said Ken Weber, Florida Forest Service Deputy Chief of Field Operations for Region 1.

“We haven’t had a significant amount of rain in about a month, and a lot of these areas in Northwest Florida,” Weber said. “Conditions are extremely dry, and some areas are approaching a dry index of over 600; which on a scale of 700-800 is extremely dry.

While crews are on the edge of their seats, Weber says they’re ready – along with their next-door neighbors.

“It is a cooperation between local fire departments, the Florida Forest Service, and the Alabama Forestry Commission,” Weber said, “because the fire does not know any boundaries, of course. And we all have to work together in sharing resources, and be available to support one another.”

Florida has pulled resources from downstate to the Panhandle to combat increased fire starts. Meanwhile, Weber is urging the public to lend a hand, through patience by holding off burning yard debris and other materials until there’s some substantial rainfall.

“As the weather cools, people want to get outdoors and clean up,” Weber said. “So we’re at a point where anything outdoors that the public’s involved with that can start a fire; you just have to be very careful.”

Anyone who burns a field, grassland or woodland without a burn permit may be subject to prosecution for committing a Class B misdemeanor – which Weber says could also torch their wallets as well.

“And even innocent as it may be, you didn’t think it would get away or get that big, the liability could be on you to pay for that [fire] suppression cost,” said Weber. “That’s another deterrent to doing stuff when conditions are just too dry to be doing that right now. Just wait on it.”

The current dry spell is considered a “flash drought” according to FPREN’s Jeff Huffman, exacerbated by the above-average daytime temperatures.

“Even though we’re heading into the months of the year that are typically a little drier than the summer months, hopefully we’ll reverse that effect and get some more rain in the next few weeks,” said Huffman. “We may still be a week or two away from our first fall cold front, but we know that’s coming; hopefully that will help as well.”

Since the inception of the U.S. Drought Monitor in 2000 by the National Drought Mitigation Center, the longest duration of drought in Florida lasted 124 weeks -- from Apr. 11, 2006 until Aug. 19, 2008. The most intense period of drought occurred the week of Feb. 27, 2001, involving 39 percent of Florida land.