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Manatee on high alert for fierce fire season

MANATEE — The National Weather Service has issued a red flag fire warning for this afternoon for Manatee County and other parts of west-central Florida.

A red flag warning indicates relative humidity will be very low for four or more hours, which can increase the risk for a rapid spread of a wildfire, said Nick Petro, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Ruskin.

Tinderbox conditions have been exacerbated by damage from recent freezes.

During the afternoon, people should avoid burning outdoors and tossing cigarettes out of their car doors and limit outdoor barbecue activity, he said.

“It’s just real common sense. Don’t do anything that will start a fire,” Petro said.

Since Jan. 1, the area has recorded 2.41 inches of rain, about 2.2 inches below normal for this time of year.

Despite predictions of rain Thursday, less than a tenth of an inch of rain had fallen by 4 p.m., not nearly enough to relieve the drought, he said.

“In terms of drought relief, it certainly is not going to help much, if any,” Petro said. “We need a lot more rain that we got today.”

The Florida Division of Forestry’s Keetch-Byram Drought Index, which measures wildfire potential, shows Manatee County in the elevated risk range of 550-599 on a scale of 0 to 800, with 800 representing the driest conditions.

Freezes have damaged vegetation, conditioning the state for more wildfires, said Patrick Mahoney, Florida Division of Forestry wildfire mitigation specialist in Bradenton.

“Not only are we dry, but we’re dead. With the three freezes that we’ve had, it has killed everything,” he said. “Things are so dead and dry that it does not take much.”

East Manatee’s open fields tend to be at most risk. About 30 percent of Manatee County has already reached 600 to 700 on the Keetch-Byram index and another 4 percent of the county is in the 700 to 800 range, Mahoney said.

Valentine’s Day saw a fire in Manatee County that burned more than 75 acres, threatening the Winding Creek subdivision in East Manatee. The fire began as an authorized burn that escaped, causing crews to respond from Myakka City, East Manatee, Parrish, Duette, Southern Manatee, Bradenton and Cedar Hammock, Mahoney said.

Other counties have also had wildfires. Early in the week, a camp fire got out of control in Hardee County. The fire jumped the Peace River, burning more than 400 acres of land. In Charlotte County on Wednesday, fire officials shut down Interstate 75 for more than 45 minutes after a fire, which is still under investigation, started in the woods and covered the interstate in smoke.

Mahoney urged people to prepare their homes against wildfires by cleaning off gutters and creating a 30-foot buffer zone around their homes. He also asks people to use caution in any outdoor activities like welding and riding all-terrain vehicles or motorcycles.

On Wednesday, the Myakka City fire department responded to a fire that was sparked by dirt bikes, said fire chief Danny Cacchiotti. The fire burned about five acres of land with heavy brush and palmettos in the early afternoon. The department this week has handled about a dozen calls for wildfires.

“We have a high percentage of dead material, foliage and grass,” Cacchiotti said. “It doesn’t take much.”

Local fire departments, including East Manatee Fire District, are on alert to share resources statewide, said deputy chief Lee Whitehurst.

Whitehurst said the recent weather patterns have the makings of a similar situation in 1998 known as the Florida Fire Storms, which happened between Memorial Day and July 4.

The year, thousands of acres across the state burned. The July 4 celebrations for NASCAR’s Pepsi 400 race at Daytona Speedway were interrupted and I-95 was closed down. Fire officials even set up resources and equipment, using the speedway for a staging area to fight fires, he said.

“This was kind of the bench mark for the worst fire season in Florida in 1998. The weather conditions we’re experiencing now are very similar to then,” Whitehurst said.

Normally, the fire activity that officials are seeing now would happen in April and May, he said.

Lake Manatee is about 5 inches below the average this time year, said Bruce MacLeod, water treatment plant superintendent.

At about 38 feet, Lake Manatee now has more than 4 billion gallons of usable water, he said. There is also an additional 75 million gallons of water in aquifer storage and recovery. Normally, at the end of June, rain begins to arrive, raising the level at Lake Manatee. “We’re doing OK, but we need to pay attention to the water restrictions because there’s no guarantee that we’re going to get the rains in June,” he said.

For more information, call the Florida Division of Forestry at 727-6481.

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