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Dry conditions prompt campfire ban

MANATEE — There’ll be no singing around the campfire in Myakka State Forest in the near future.

Or along the Little Manatee River. Or on any other land owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, for that matter.

The reason: It’s too dry.

The district announced Friday that it is indefinitely banning campfires, lighters and all other sources of open flame from its lands because of tinderbox-like conditions caused by a prolonged drought.

“It’s extremely dry out there and there’s a very high risk of wildfires right now,” district spokeswoman Robyn Felix said.

Manatee County’s Keetch-Byram Index averaged 647 on Friday, indicating an “extreme” fire risk. The index is used to measure the combustibility of Florida’s counties.

The high fire risk is largely because Manatee and the rest of Southwest Florida have been mired in a drought that’s now in its third year. In the past 18 months, the area has gotten about 30 fewer inches of rain than it normally would see, Felix said.

Besides the campfire ban, the district also has indefinitely suspended controlled burns that are used to reduce the risk of wildfires.

“We do those when weather and conditions permit it, but there’s so much dry vegetation out there that there’s too much of a risk to do controlled burns,” Felix said.

The bans cover about 350,000 acres the district owns in 16 counties, including 12,259 acres in Manatee.

That includes 46 recreation areas, four of which are in Manatee: Lake Manatee Reserve, Little Manatee River-South Fork, Myakka River-Flatford Swamp and Terra Ceia Preserve State Park. None of the Manatee recreation areas allow camping.

Water managers also are urging visitors to drive on designated roads or trails; avoid parking in areas with dead grass or underbrush; be careful with gas lanterns and stoves; properly dispose of smoking materials; and carry a shovel and fire extinguisher in their vehicles.

The bans likely will last “until probably the rainy season starts in mid-June, when we start to get some rainfall again,” Felix said.

Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.