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Danger of fire is worst since '98

State forestry officials are hoping advertisements and more education will help avoid a forest fire outbreak like the one two years ago.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 26, 2000

HERNANDO -- Heat and lack of rainfall have created the gravest forest fire conditions in Citrus County since 1998, when raging blazes threatened lives and burned hundreds of thousands of acres across Florida. The state Division of Forestry has designated the Withlacoochee District, a region comprising Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Sumter and Lake counties, as a Level 5 on the fire readiness scale, Forestry Division employees said Thursday. Level 1 is the least dangerous condition.

The last substantial rainfall hit Citrus on March 31 when the county received 2.3 inches, forestry records show.

"As far as we know, we are the only area (in the state) that is at Fire Level 5 . . . and everybody knows what occurs when that happens," said senior forester Timothy Worley, who is part of the two-person fire mitigation team sent in Monday to educate the public on prevention.

As of Thursday, the Lakeland District, consisting of Pinellas, Hillsborough and Polk counties, remained at Level 4.

Worley and partner Timber Weller, a wildfire mitigation specialist, met this week with local fire officials to discuss the dangerous conditions resulting from the area's lack of rainfall. The Southwest Florida Water Management District, which recently imposed one-day-per-week watering rules for May and June, just announced that the first three months of 2000 were the driest on record since 1915.

This year's worst fire in the county flared up north of Crystal River and eventually scorched 500 acres. But smaller blazes continue to deplete local resources, and forestry employees are wary of conditions in which thick undergrowth crunches to the footstep and pine needles, normally repositories of moisture, break to the touch.

At press time Thursday, volunteers and state Division of Forestry firefighters were fighting a 20-acre fire that broke out shortly after 4 p.m. near County Road 491 and Tram Road. The fire's cause was unknown. On Wednesday, tanker planes from Ocala were called in to drop fire retardant on a late afternoon blaze that consumed 75 acres off W Dunklin Street and Fairport Avenue in north Citrus County. Another wildfire scorched 20 acres in the Citrus Hills area Wednesday.

State forestry officials estimate that 30 to 40 percent of the fires they've fought have been deliberately set, said Erin Albury, Citrus-Hernando Forest Area supervisor for the Division of Forestry.

"I'm not sure there's anything you can say to people who would do that," Albury said. "For everybody else, please be aware of the very dry conditions."

A statewide ban on outdoor burning that prohibits residents from starting any fires outside, except for barbecues, is in effect. And even with barbecues, Albury said, people should be careful.

Once local fire services spend $1.5-million fighting fires, the Federal Emergency Management Agency begins reimbursing 70 percent of the costs, Public Safety Director Charles Poliseno told Citrus commissioners this week. He could not be reached for figure on the amount spent to date.

The fire readiness level incorporates a number of conditions, Worley said, including rainfall, moisture and humidity levels, as well as the amount of ignitable undergrowth on the ground. Officials also refer to the state drought index. According to the most up-to-date figures Thursday, counties within the Withlacoochee area had some of the highest readings in the state.

The index measures the amount of water contained in the top 3 feet of soil, Weller said. If an area hits 700 on the scale, that means there is only 1 inch of water below the surface. The driest measure is 800.

Pinellas is the state's driest county with a 748 rating. Citrus is second driest at 746. Pasco at 730 was next, followed by Hernando at 694, Sumter at 667 and Lake at 640.

Looking at his laptop computer and the drought index map posted on the Division of Forestry's Web site, Weller pointed to the purple and dark red colors covering the area.

"That tells us a lot right there," he said. "All the conditions are here" for major fires.

The strike team of Worley and Weller are trying to get the word out to the public. Because of its 1998 experience, the Forestry Division knows that education efforts do make a difference.

So far, many local theaters and some billboard companies have agreed to run public service announcements. On Thursday, the division put the finishing touches on an advisory notice that will be sent to homeowners in targeted areas using residential information from the Office of the Citrus County Property Appraiser.

-- Staff writers Bridget Hall, Bill Varian and Robin Mitchell contributed to this story.

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