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Wildfire threat in Southwest Florida gets real as drought conditions persist

The Florida Forest Service updates the Keetch-Byram Drought Index daily, which shows Collier and Lee counties in bright red to indicate the lack of moisture in the soil. The dry conditions have caused trees, shrubs, and dead trees felled by Hurricane Ian to become drier, creating tinder-like conditions in Southwest Florida.
Florida Forest Service
The Florida Forest Service updates the Keetch-Byram Drought Index daily, which shows Collier and Lee counties in bright red to indicate the lack of moisture in the soil. The dry conditions have caused trees, shrubs, and dead trees felled by Hurricane Ian to become drier, creating tinder-like conditions in Southwest Florida.

Southwest Florida is ready to burn.

The soil is parched, the underbrush brittle, and drought has a grip on the region.

Rainfall totals since the beginning of the year are more than 70 percent below normal. Add to that all the trees, branches and shrubs destroyed by Hurricane Ian six months ago that have dried out on the forest floor, and the woods are a tinderbox.

A lightning strike, a cigarette thrown out a car window, or an unattended campfire could be all it takes to start a raging wildfire.

Conditions are so dry that Collier County this week reinforced its burn ban against lighting outdoor fires, restrictions that will remain in effect for the foreseeable future. Anyone who violates the ban and starts a wildfire can be fined $15,000.

“We are urging residents and visitors of Collier County to obey the burn ban to reduce the risk of wildfire,” said Dan Summers, director of Collier County Bureau of Emergency Services. “In addition, we suggest that you keep an area of approximately 30 feet mowed and cleared of flammable materials around your home and outbuildings to prevent a fire from reaching your structures.”

Wildfire necessary

It's wildfire season in Florida, that period of time between the waning hurricane season in the fall and the start of the rainy season in late spring.

Counties with burn bans in Southwest Florida
Florida Forest Service
Counties with burn bans in Southwest Florida

Wildfire is not just a necessary element in the woodland environment, it is crucial.

Forest fires torch dead and dying vegetation allowing new growth to flourish and nutrients to recycle. Some seeds are fire-resistant, and when their shoots start growing out of the blackened ground they provide a tender meal for a host of animals. Other seedlings grow into fire-adapted species such as saw palmetto and slash pine, which is a safe home to myriad creatures.

The Florida Scrub Oak has thick bark that protects it from the heat of wildfires, and produces acorns that germinate after being exposed to fire. Wiregrass needs blazes to stimulate its growth and seed production. Sand pine, saw palmetto, and chapman's oak also have fire-dependant needs.

Periodic woodland blazes clear out certain invasive species that are not adapted to wildfire, while native creatures thrive.

Gopher tortoise burrows are deep and long, and when wildfire threatens many species set aside their normal differences and huddle together in the safety of the underground burrows. After the fire, tortoises reap a hospitality reward of sorts with better foraging and easier travel.

Florida panthers, black bears and many other endangered species require huge tracts of land clear enough for them to roam, hunt, and live in. Wildfires provide that.

Little fires to avoid big ones

Wildfires only became a problem when people began building homes in woodsy subdivisions. That, and when the policy was to put out every wildland blaze as fast as possible, not knowing what didn't burn then would build up and create a much larger wildfire someday.

Forestry ranger in tractor cutting a fire line to stop a forest fire
Florida Forest Service
Forestry ranger in tractor cutting a fire line to stop a forest fire

Floridians began to get serious about wildfires after the firestorms of 1998. Blazes that year destroyed or damaged more than 400 homes and businesses, forced the evacuation of 110,000 residents and cost taxpayers $100 million.

The Florida De partment of Agriculture and Consumer Services reports that
nearly a third of the state's population lives in interface areas where homes intermingle with forests and wildlands.

"Residents here, however, usually don't realize they may live too 'close to nature' and they may, in fact, be living on the edge of a wildfire disaster," the agency says on its website. "On average, Florida experiences the second-highest number of wildfires in the nation."

Now long-established are "Firewise" communities, which are neighborhoods built and maintained to deflect wildfire.

Features of a Firewise community include using nonflammable building materials such as slate and stucco, making sure that residents are aware of the threat, and landscaping in ways that resists fire such as creating that 30-foot buffer around the house free of anything that can burn that Summers from Collier County mentioned.

Called a “defensible space,” the 30-foot boundary should be free of low-hanging tree limbs that touch a home, dried-out shrubs in the yard, and log piles along the house. Even a wooden fence can cause disaster as it can act like a candle's wick providing flames a direct line to the side of a home.

That wildfire is necessary is now accepted as fact. To allow for wildfire to do all that it does for the forest, environment wildland firefighters light prescribed burns, which are small, controlled fires in the woods outside of fire season to prevent out-of-control blazes later on.

Heating up

The Florida Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services reports 1,009 wildfires in the state so far this year that have charred a combined total of 32,919 acres.

On Thursday, a wildfire nearing 700 acres on the other side of Lake Okeechobee near Jupiter was nearly contained, as was another blaze nearing 2,000 acres in Volusia County.

A 300-acre wildfire near Golden Gate earlier this month destroyed two homes, damaged several others, and sent residents fleeing.

Shortly after Collier County issued a burn ban Friday a brush fire caused evacuations and shut down traffic in the area of Immokalee Road, Everglades Avenue and Wilson Boulevard. Immokalee Road was reopened around 8 p.m.
Shortly after Collier County issued its burn ban earlier this month, a brush fire destroyed two homes near Everglades Avenue and Wilson Boulevard

Three smaller fires in the greater I-75 corridor area north of the Caloosahatchee River torched a small number of combined acres this week as well.

Lightning and careless children account for a majority of the wildfires. Arson, which has created wildfires that have turned deadly, remains a constant problem.

Drought continues

The South Florida Water Management District joins Lee and Hendry counties in agreement with Collier’s burn bans, each slightly different due to particulars of the city or region but the rules usually ban things like bonfires, campfires, burning of trash or yard waste and any other outdoor fire except for a cookout in a barbecue typically in an enclosed propane or charcoal grill.

In most counties with burn bans, people can still purchase legal fireworks such as sparklers, they just can’t use them right now.

Whether the fireworks shows by the professionals, like those celebrating the Fourth of July, are going to be allowed will be decided on a case-by-case basis depending on conditions closer to the event.

Hurricanes Ian's environmental impacts continue long after the Category 4 cyclone made landfall in Lee County in late September. Ian has impacted red tides outbreaks, beach closures, and now wildfires.

Heather Mazurkiewicz, the spokeswoman for the North Collier Fire Control and Rescue District, said wildfire activity during the upcoming months will depend in part on whether blazes make it into the woodsy path of Hurricane Ian where debris has had six months to dry out in drought conditions.

"It's probably going to be a pretty active season," she said. "A lot of that has to do with Ian, the devastation that Ian left, and the fuel that in still there."

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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