South Florida spared extensive blazes after thousands of acres charred in ’07

May 13, 2008

Palm Beach Post--May 12, 2008

Palm Beach Post Staff Writers

While residents of Brevard and Volusia counties fled their homes Monday as firefighters battled to keep flames away from subdivisions, South Florida has largely been spared extensive wildfires this season.

A low-density muck fire burning at Lake Okeechobee was about 50 percent contained late Monday, the state Division of Forestry said. The fire, which has burned about 9,000 to 10,000 acres, is being pushed by winds toward the interior of the lake, where higher water levels are slowing it.

In Jupiter, two homes were evacuated Monday afternoon because of a brush fire that started near Toney Penna Drive, Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue Capt. Don DeLucia said. The fire came within 500 yards of homes in the Georgian Park neighborhood but was contained by 5:15 p.m., he said.

In Broward County, a portion of the Sawgrass Expressway was closed for more than three hours Monday afternoon because of a brush fire on the median near the University Drive exit.

These were exceptions in what has been a generally fire-free dry season in South Florida.

Thousands of acres were charred last year in Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties, but only a relative handful have burned this year.

According to the Division of Forestry, nearly 12,000 acres burned across Palm Beach County through May 12, 2007. For the same period this year, it’s 10 acres.

The corresponding figures are 307 and five in Martin County and 137 and 31 in St. Lucie County.

Only Okeechobee County is reporting more acres burning this year, 4,197 to 2,668, mostly because of the large muck fire at Lake Okeechobee.

As of Monday, the Keetch-Byram Drought Index, which measures soil dryness on a 0 to 800 scale, shows Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties in the 400 to 449 range. Martin County and the rest of the region is at 450 or higher.

In Brevard and Volusia counties, however, nearly 4,000 acres were aflame Monday, prompting Gov. Charlie Crist to declare a state of emergency, with the state Emergency Operations Centers moving to partial activation status to assist local agencies.

Fire crews from Boca Raton, Boynton Beach, Palm Beach Gardens and Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue left Monday night to help battle the blazes in Brevard County.

In Daytona Beach, helicopters dropped water on a fire that had burned about 800 acres by Monday afternoon, authorities ordered about 500 homes in the city’s northwest area evacuated, and a 5-mile stretch of LPGA Boulevard in the city was shut down because fires were too close to the road.

By Monday, the fire was about 20 percent contained, but firefighters’ efforts were challenged by high winds.

Forestry officials warn that while the rainy season should start any day now, it will take up to a month for the ground to get wet enough for the fire risk to diminish sufficiently. In fact, it could get worse before it gets better, with thunderstorms bringing little rain but lots of lightning to spark blazes.

The Okeechobee County fire is one of many that are beneficial, clearing dense ground brush and encouraging new growth.

“Florida was made to burn,” Forestry Division spokesman Steve Petrich said. “It’s healthy for the ecosystem, and it’s just part of it. (But) it didn’t factor into the house situation.”

Many Treasure Coast residents are paying a price for the woodsy ambience in which they live.

“A lot of communities want that urban feeling but with the rural environment,” said Treasure Coast forestry spokeswoman Melissa Yunas. “We call that a wildland-urban interface, where trees meet the eaves of the house.”

Remember, Yunas says, if you have no trouble finding small sticks, leaves and pine needles to make a campfire near your house, all that fire-starting fuel is also on your roof or just a gust of wind away from blowing onto it.