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Lightning, wind concern firefighters

The potential for weather change means the interstates could be shut down at any time, the Florida Highway Patrol cautioned. Visibility on I-75 had already started to deteriorate to a quarter of a mile, Sunday afternoon.

By JAMAL THALJI
Published May 13, 2007


LAKE CITY — An ominous sign greeted those tasked with containing the raging Bugaboo Fire on Sunday morning: clear skies.

Improved visibility was good news for motorists on Interstates 75 and 10, the two main traffic arteries in North Central Florida that were temporarily opened on Mother’s Day. But it also means a change in the weather is coming, and that could be bad news for fire-suppression efforts in the blackened Osceola National Forest.

Thundershowers are expected about 1 p.m. today in the Columbia County region. If the forecast is correct, it will mean much needed rain for the area, but also could produce a dangerous mix of stronger winds and lightning.

“If we do get some thunderstorms over the fire, great, we get some rain,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Tony Edwards. “But another concern is lightning. You could dump rain in one area and set fires in another with lightning.”

Monday also will be a critical weather day: humidity is expected to remain high but wind speeds are expected to increase, from a calm 5 mph this weekend to 15- to 25-mph gusts.

“This is a predominantly wind-drive fire,” Edwards said. “So the wind is a concern.”

The potential for weather change means the interstates could be shut down at any time, the Florida Highway Patrol cautioned. Visibility on I-75 had already started to deteriorate to a quarter of a mile as the afternoon approached.

The change in weather could also make it too dangerous for wild land firefighters to continue strengthening fire lines on the blaze’s western flank. The wildfire has now consumed about 102,000 acres of Florida landscape, throwing smoke as far as the Tampa Bay area and even Miami.

It is by far the largest and most worrisome of the 218 fires that have burned 190,000 acres in the state.

Now it’s a race against time for those firefighters to bulldoze and plow and build-up another four to five miles of fire lines before the weather changes for the worse.

“When you get a fire that can build up enough of a head and can throw embers out in front,” said Florida Division of Forestry incident commander Sonny Greene, “it’s important that you have very strong lines to control that.”

And that’s just what those firefighters have been doing round-the-clock this weekend, taking advantage of the high humidity and low winds. That created a lull in a forest fire that once raged out of control, and officials caution, could do so again.

Overnight Saturday, firefighters successfully ignited a line of backfires to consume anything green left between the fire lines and the fire in an attempt to starve the blaze of potential fuel. Today they’ll be out in force trying to dig up anything left behind that could serve as fuel.
Columbia County Sheriff Bill Gootee said some evacuees are being temporarily let back in. Officials on Saturday reported that about 150 homes and about 570 in the county were evacuated from U.S. 441 north to I-10 and the Georgia border.

“We’re allowing some back in to check on their cattle, their dogs, their cats and get medication,” the sheriff said. “We’re asking them if they do return to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.”

FHP troopers are standing by to close I-75 and I-10 again, too, at a moment’s notice.

“Everything that I’m looking at from the weather service is that (visibility) is going to continue to deteriorate,” said FHP Major Rick Carpenter.