JACKSONVILLE. Fla. – Our beautiful, sunny weather pattern is perfect for beach days, but the lack of rain is contributing to an enhanced wildfire danger. Other factors are also in our forecast like low relative humidity, gusty winds, and the mild winter we experienced prompting early vegetative growth have created nearly ideal conditions for forest fires. With wildfires, three factors are the main contributors to duration, spread, and behavior of the wildfire: fuels, weather and topography. Our wooded areas are flush with fuels and our weather has been dry and windy. Governor Rick Scott declared a State of Emergency for Florida because of the wildfire danger.
Since the beginning of the year, Jacksonville has only seen 6.47" of rainfall, and 4.05" of that was quite early, in January. February brought 1.35" and March only produced 1.07" of rain. Comparing that to our normal rainfall averages, January was slightly above average and then February was 1.84" below normal and March was 2.88" below normal. So far in April we have seen .41" of rain and we usually average 2.64" of rain in April. Looking at the long range forecasts, we could go the rest of the month with only one chance near the end of the month for about an inch of rain. Even with a good rain, it only takes a few days of dry and windy weather for vegetation to dry out and present a fire danger.
Despite the below average rainfall, we are not in moderate or severe drought stages. The Keetch-Byram Drought Index (KBDI) estimates the moisture level of the soil and duff layers (duff is the layer of decomposed leaves, needles, fine twigs, and other organic material in the soil,) is on the good side of the scale, with more dry conditions in central and South Florida.
So far in 2017 human error has been the primary cause of wildfires. The Florida Forestry Commission estimates that 40% of wildfires in Jacksonville were caused by debris burning that got out of control. Unfortunately, close to 30% are attributed to incendiary causes, possibly related to arson. Most area counties have issued burn bans as a result of the dry and windy conditions.
April is typically one of our drier months but this April is shaping up to be drier than normal. We have a small chance for rain by the middle of next week, with a more organized chance for rain shaping up within a few days of the end of the month. May is also one of the drier months in Florida. The Florida Forest Service's long range outlook details some distant, but good news, "The current drought in central Florida is likely to spread northwards, into parts of FFS Districts 6, 7, 8, and 10. However, the CPC is forecasting that this may only be a short-term phenomenon that may dissipate once the rainy season starts in June." Predictive Services with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise are forecasting that in April, regions of Florida east of the Suwannee River will have an above normal Significant Wildland Fire Potential. This will expand to include the whole state in May and June.
The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) is sharing key steps to staying safe during this dangerous season. Follow these tips to reduce your risk from wildfire.
Each of us can play a role in making our communities safer from wildfire. Your local fire department is the best place to start. Meet with firefighters to ask questions and get information.
- Make a plan. Find the best two evacuation routes from your home and from your community. Know how you will use them.
- Practice your plan with everyone in your family. If you have a pet, include a leash or carrier in your planning. Practice using both evacuation routes in case one is blocked by smoke or fire.
- Have a communications plan for your family members in case you aren’t together during an evacuation.
- Make an emergency bag. Put essential personal items in the bag so they’ll be ready to grab and go. Include your pet supplies.
- Know ahead of time how you will receive emergency information from officials in your community. In a wildfire, follow their evacuation instructions.
- Keep your roof, rain gutters, deck, and yard clean and green.
- Make a safety zone up to 100 feet around your home by clearing dry leaves, pine needles, branches, and other plant debris.
- Put anything that can burn, such as woodpiles, propane tanks, etc., at least 100 feet away from your home.
- Choose patio furniture and other outdoor items with fire safety in mind.
- Make sure your house number can be easily seen from the road.
Wildfire burned more than 5.5 million acres in the U.S. last year.