BREAKING: 5,000-acre prescribed burn to end “arsonist’s selfish game”

A 5,000-acre prescribed burn is scheduled for Wednesday on Lake Okeechobee to thwart an arsonist who has been setting fires in dried marshes.

Melissa Yunas, a spokeswoman for the Florida Forest Service, said this morning the Glades County Fire Department and forest service firefighters have been forced in the past two weeks to put out several arson-set fires on the western part of the lake.

Lower water levels in Florida’s vast freshwater heart mean marshes can quickly dry out, creating a rich fuel source for wildfire.

“Due to a decline in water levels, the shallow water marshes quickly dry out when overexposed to the sun’s radiant heat, which heats and dries potential fuels for a wildfire,” said Florida Forest Service Area Supervisor Joe deBree. “By burning out the dry vegetation, we can put an end to the arsonist’s selfish game of jeopardizing the public’s and first responder’s safety.”

Wildfire burns on the Treasure Coast in this Feb. 16, 2017 photo

JUST IN: “Very high” to “extreme” fire danger today

A prolonged dry spell has put all of South Florida at an escalated risk of wildfire with blazes already burning in the Treasure Coast and Palm Beach County.

Palm Beach County Fire Rescue crews are at a brush fire near Lantana Road and Florida’s Turnpike this morning, while Interstate 95 in Indian River County was shut down temporarily overnight because of heavy smoke from wildfires.

The Okeechobee district of the Florida Forest Service said 20 homes were saved from a fast-moving fire in St. Lucie County that burned at least 80 acres.

More than 400 acres burned in Indian River County Wednesday from four wildfires that were started by lightning strikes from Tuesday’s storms.

Melissa Yunas, a Florida Forest Service fire mitigation specialist, said fire crews will be checking on, and mopping up, fires this morning.

About 40 wildfires are burning statewide, according to the Florida Forest Service.

A new drought monitor report is expected this morning. Last week, the first signs of drought were noted in Palm Beach County. At Palm Beach International Airport, just 8.78 inches of rain has been measured since Nov. 1.

That’s half of what is normal for this time in the dry season.

Active wildfires as of March 22, 2018

The National Weather Service in Miami had Palm Beach County under a rare red flag fire warning Wednesday because of gusty winds. Lower winds today allowed the warning to expire.

The Keetch-Byram Drought Index used by the Florida Forest Service was at 551 this morning. Typically, anything over 600 is associated with drought conditions.

The index measures drought on a 0-to-800 scale with 800 being desert-like and 0 being saturated ground.

There is no rain in the forecast until Tuesday, and then it’s only a 20 percent chance.

 

Rainy season can’t come soon enough for wildfire threat, ‘We are all on edge’

Florida’s dependable rainy season can’t come soon enough as wildfires rage statewide.

While the average start date is May 21, meteorologists aren’t sure Mother Nature plans to keep that schedule.

Tonya Schumacher, who lives in Viking Prairie in northwest Okeechobee County, said her community is terrified of wildfire after an Easter blaze burned hundreds of acres and came within 300 yards of her back door.

Related: How much water (and money) should your pool lose to evaporation?

While homes were saved, one man lost two trucks and a camper. Schumacher said there is still a fire smoldering underground and the community started a Facebook page to alert each other if they see smoke.

“All the neighbors will run out with shovels and buckets of water,” she said. “We all just go running with whatever we can to put it out because Easter was just so devastating.”

Download the Palm Beach Post WeatherPlus app here.

Except in a lucky slice of southeast Florida, much of the state is dry.

The Kissimmee basin, a slow-draining faucet that feeds Lake Okeechobee, is the largest of four pockets across the country suffering extreme drought. And the Caloosahatchee Estuary is dying of thirst, getting less than half of the fresh water it needs from an evaporating lake that is at its lowest level since 2011.

Check The Palm Beach Post radar map.

On Friday, after the year’s first 90-degree day in West Palm Beach, National Weather Service meteorologists put more than half of Palm Beach County under a red flag fire warning, meaning critical fire weather conditions are either occurring or will shortly.

“The thing about Florida, it’s all about what have you done for me lately,” said Randy Lascody, a meteorologist with the NWS in Melbourne. “If it doesn’t rain for a week or so, you get put right back into wildfire threat potential.”

Read the full story and learn  more about why forecasters are anxious about the start of rainy season in The Palm Beach Post. 

Red flag fire warning issued for Palm Beach County

The National Weather Service in Miami has issued a red flag fire warning for parts of Palm Beach County through 8 p.m. tonight.

Low humidity, high heat and south-southwest winds triggered the alert, which covers most of western Palm Beach and Broward counties.

 

The Florida Forest Service counted 142 active wildfires statewide on Thursday, with 29 covering more than 100 acres each.

Check The Palm Beach Post radar map.

Tonya Schumacher, who lives in Viking Prairie in northwest Okeechobee County, said her community is terrified of wildfire after an Easter blaze burned hundreds of acres and came within 300 yards of her back door.

While homes were saved, one man lost two trucks and a camper. Schumacher said there is still a fire smoldering underground and the community started a Facebook page to alert each other if they see smoke.

“All the neighbors will run out with shovels and buckets of water,” she said. “We all just go running with whatever we can to put it out because Easter was just so devastating.”

 

Breaking: State of emergency declared over Florida wildfires

More than 23,000 acres of Florida was on fire Tuesday triggering a state of emergency and comparisons to the devastating wildfire year of 2011 when two forest service rangers were killed battling a blaze near Tallahassee.

A prolonged dry spell that has escalated drought conditions in parts of the state to severe levels and windy conditions are blamed for the 105 fires burning Tuesday – a state number that didn’t include fires on federal land.

Related: Drought conditions escalate in South Florida

In South Florida, 10,435 acres of federally- managed Big Cypress National Preserve was on fire north of Interstate 75. As of Tuesday afternoon, the blaze – dubbed the Cowbell Fire – was just 5 percent contained.

“Each day we are running 20 to 25 new wildfires,” said Florida Forest Service Director James Karels. “The bad part is, it’s mostly in the Peninsula, which spread our resources pretty thin.”

The state of emergency declared by Gov. Rick Scott is a mostly administrative move that reduces bureaucratic speed bumps and allows for the National Guard to be used if necessary.

Karels said the last time National Guard troops were needed to fight fires in Florida was 2011 when there were more than 4,800 wildfires that burned nearly 300,000 acres of state and federal land, according to Florida Division of Emergency Management.

Two Florida forest rangers, Josh Burch, 31, of Lake City and 52-year-old Brett Fulton of White Springs died fighting the so called “Blue Ribbon Fire” about 85 miles northeast of Tallahassee.

This year and 2011 have something in common – the weather pattern La Nina.

While La Nina transitioned to a neutral phase in the past few weeks, its hallmark impact for Florida – drought – continues.

“The weather has really deteriorated so bad as far as fires go,” said Scott Peterich, a wildfire mitigation specialist for South Florida. “It’s been so dry and with high winds, once a fire gets started, it’s just going to run.”

The Cowbell Fire grew from 596 acres to 8,335 on Sunday after two days of red flag fire warnings, which are sent out by the National Weather Service when there are dry conditions, low humidity and high winds.

“We had to evacuate campgrounds and the preserve is closed north if I-75,” said Michelle Burnett, a public information officer handling the Cowbell fire. “Everything is dried out, and it really took off on us.”

Related: Severe drought escalates in Florida 

Related: South Florida wildfire burns 6,800 acres

Wildfire burns on the Treasure Coast in this Feb. 16, 2017 photo

About 60 percent of Palm Beach County is listed in “moderate drought” with the remainder considered extremely dry.

But areas west, north and south of Lake Okeechobee are faring worse, falling into the “severe drought” category.

South Florida wildfire burns 6,800 acres as dry conditions continue

A massive brush fire in western Broward County scorched 6,800 acres before finally being contained this morning as dry conditions threaten more uncontrolled burns.

The so-called “Holiday” fire threatened multiple structures and caused the evacuation of Mach’s Fish Camp, but no buildings ultimately burned, said Scott Peterich, a wildfire mitigation specialist for the Everglades District, which includes Palm Beach County.

Check The Palm Beach Post radar map.

Peterich said South Florida has had 68 wildfires this year, compared to 20 during the same period in 2016.

That’s a 240 percent increase.

“Our current weather pattern of drought, low relative humidity and windy conditions greatly increase the chance of a wildfire occurring,” Peterich said. “Under these conditions, a wildfire will spread very quickly and be much harder to control.”

Download the Palm Beach Post WeatherPlus app here.

As of Friday, much of coastal Palm Beach County is down 8.57 inches of rain for the season that began Nov. 2. Martin and St. Lucie counties have an 8.27 inch rain deficit as measured by the South Florida Water Management District.

The average rain deficit in the 16 counties covered by the district is 5.2 inches.

Firefighters extinguish pockets of fire on a tract owned by FPL along Kyoto Gardens Drive north of PGA Boulevard and west of Alternate A1A Monday, March 6, 2017. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

The Keetch-Byram Drought Index, which measures drought on a 0-to-800 scale with 800 being desert-like and 0 being saturated ground, had a mean index for Palm Beach County of 571, but parts were as high as 658.

Anything above 600 is associated with more severe drought and an increase in intense wildfires.

National Weather Service forecasters said only spotty showers are expected this week with no more than a 20 percent chance through Thursday.

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Keetch-Byram Drought Index for April 9, 2017