The weather system that heralds Florida's summer storms may bring rain - and wildfire relief - as early as this weekend.
By MIKE BRASSFIELD
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 30, 2001
The heavens have begun their annual rain dance, and not a moment too soon for fire-plagued Florida.
"There is a hint that next week may be the start of the thunderstorm season," said Walt Zalesky, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Ruskin on Tuesday. "We could see more shower and thunderstorm activity as early as this coming weekend."
The Bermuda High, a huge balloon of high pressure and a major player in Florida's summer weather, has moved to its summertime position off the East Coast.
Wet sea air swirls around it in a clockwise pattern, shooting over Florida and running into sea breezes from the Gulf of Mexico. Moisture from the colliding winds condenses into rain clouds.
"It's a gradual shift. We're in the transition period right now," Zalesky said. "We'll start getting more southeasterly winds, and they'll bring more tropical moisture."
Florida, battling dozens of small and large wildfires, is facing its worst drought in decades, baking away rivers, lakes, crops and yards.
"The rainy season can't come a moment too soon," said Michael Molligan, spokesman for the Southwest Florida Water Management District. "It'll provide immediate relief, but it won't signal the end of the drought."
The state gets 70 percent of its rainfall during the four- to five-month rainy season, which sometimes starts as early as the last week of May. Unfortunately, it can start as late as the last week of June.
More than 90 percent of Florida's summer rainfall comes from thunderstorms, which can be a mixed blessing. Lightning will start even more brush fires.
Lightning fires tend to start in woods or swamps and can become massive before they're discovered.
"We'll take the rain, anyway," said Terry McElroy, spokesman for the Florida Agriculture Department. "We just hope there isn't a whole lot of lightning, and what there is, we hope it doesn't cause a lot of problems."
Firefighters were battling nearly 60 active wildfires around the state Tuesday, including the 16-day-old Mallory Swamp fire, which had burned almost 61,000 acres of timber and swamp between Tallahassee and Gainesville.
Smaller fires burned all over Central Florida, including a stubborn 1,200-acre blaze south of Interstate 4 and west of Haines City.
Fires persisted in Lake and Sumter counties northeast of the Tampa Bay area, and several burned around Sarasota as well.
In addition, firefighters from Pasco County and the state's Forestry Division were battling a fire late Monday in the central part of the county, near State Road 52, a main east-west artery.