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Florida's weather paradox: dousing on one end ... drought on the other

The Escribano Point WMA encompasses approximately 4,129 acres in Santa Rosa County and stretches along the Blackwater and East Bay. Its shoreline protects over 10 miles of northwest Florida coast and is host to numerous imperiled species. FWC photo
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conser/Florida Fish and Wildlife

The Sunshine State is so vast that while Hurricane Ian saturates Southwest Florida the Panhandle’s parched forests are ready to burn.

The Florida Forestry Service is listing the wildfire threat in Northwest Florida “critical” due to a combination of low humidity, high pressure to the north of the state, and very dry soil.

“I’ve been thinking about that paradox – major hurricane on the Peninsula and Fire Weather Watches in the Panhandle. It really speaks to Florida’s size, ecological diversity and uniqueness, and the unpredictable marvel that is weather in the South,” Joe Zwierzchowski, a Forest Service wildfire mitigation officer in Milton, said Wednesday morning. “The same front that’s steering Ian away from us up here is bringing very low humidity, stronger winds and a very real chance of significant fire.”

South Florida is undergoing historical rainfall associated with, as of Wednesday morning, Category 5 Hurricane Ian and catastrophic flooding in days to come has been forecast. Landfall is expected Wednesday between Venice and Fort Myers.

“I’ve been thinking about that paradox – major hurricane on the Peninsula and Fire Weather Watches in the Panhandle. It really speaks to Florida’s size, ecological diversity and uniqueness, and the unpredictable marvel that is weather in the South."
Joe Zwierzchowski, Florida Forest Service wildfire mitigation officer

In the Panhandle, wildfire conditions are more dire than anywhere else in the continental U.S. including wildfire-scarred areas of Northern California, Oregon, and nearby states.

“This area is most likely to see critical fire weather as sustained winds near 15-20 mph with higher gusts probable” the Florida Forest Service wrote in a wildfire advisory Wednesday morning. “The combination of the strong surface high to the north and the strong pressure gradient around Hurricane Ian will drive moderately strong northerly winds across much of the Southeast.

“With these areas remaining dry, fuels are receptive to fire spread.”

More than 2,200 wildfires have burned in Florida, scorching 154,427 acres, according to the Florida Forest Service.

One small wildfire is burning today north of Pensacola in Escambia County, but Florida wildfire officials fear the soil’s deep dryness in the Panhandle may lead to more.

The Keetch-Byram Drought Index is a reference scale that measures the dryness in the soil ,which ranges from zero in fully saturated ground to 750 in soil devoid of moisture available to vegetation in the top inches. In Northeast Florida it is hovering in the 400 range with pockets along the Florida-Alabama border and in the far-western part of the state reaching into the 600s.

In South Florida the index shows the lowest range: zero to 99. Category 4 Hurricane Ian is forecast to drop more than 10 to 12 inches throughout places south and central Florida today and tomorrow, Flash flooding is expected in places throughout peninsular Florida as a result.

The Escribano Point WMA encompasses approximately 4,129 acres in Santa Rosa County and stretches along the Blackwater and East Bay. Its shoreline protects over 10 miles of northwest Florida coast and is host to numerous imperiled species. FWC photo
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conser/Florida Fish and Wildlife

Florida spans 65,758 square miles, and it takes nearly 13 hours to drive from Key West to Pensacola.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the U.S. Forest Service are among the state and federal agencies that have fought no less than 6,594 wildfires that torched 365,748 acres so far this year in and around California, Washington, Oregon.

The National Interagency Fire Center reported on Wednesday that 52,951 incidents so far in 2022 that have burned nearly 8 million acres nationwide.

Zwierzchowski, a Forest Service wildfire mitigation officer, said he and his fellow firefighters are set to travel to South Florida soon to lend a hand with hurricane recovery efforts.

“Thankfully, the front will be short lived relative to the impacts of the storm,: he said. “And we’re preparing to head south and help the residents of Florida as soon as it’s safe to do so.”

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health.

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