Another brush fire, but is relief on way?

A cold front forecast to reach Tampa Bay this morning may bring rain that would end more than 40 days of drought.

Published April 9, 2006

A fire in Tarpon Springs consumed 5 acres of trees and heavy brush Saturday afternoon. It took a handful of agencies to contain a suspicious blaze that one fire marshal's official described as the biggest he had seen in a year.

Investigators are trying to figure out what or who started it. But Rick Butcher, Tarpon Springs fire prevention chief, already knows what aggravated it: "The high winds and dry weather," he said.

That's a familiar refrain in the past few weeks, with brush fires materializing around Tampa Bay, which reached 40 days of drought on Friday.

But some relief may be on the way.

A cold front from the Panhandle is forecast to reach the area this morning, possibly bringing less than half an inch of rainfall or scattered showers.

Ernie Jillson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, called it "a start." He said it was the best chance so far this month to get more than 0.01 inch of rain, the point when weather watchers can start measuring and the drought can officially end.

The record in Tampa is 52 straight days without measurable rain, set in 1942. By Saturday night, the current dry spell was tied for sixth on the area's drought list.

The cold front also explains the pickup in winds, Jillson said. In the Tarpon Springs fire, they reached between 20 and 25 mph. "You will generally get an increase of wind speeds ahead of the cold front and behind it," he said.

When the front moves through Tampa Bay this morning, the winds will shift from southwest to northeast and taper down to the 15 mph range on land, Jillson said. Boaters might feel moderate chop or better, with winds 15 to 20 knots, and near-shore seas between 3 and 5 feet.

Those northeasterly winds can last until the middle of this week, though it doesn't appear that the National Weather Service will issue a fire weather watch, said Jillson.