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Rain hasn't dampened fire dangers

The rains have helped, a forest ranger says, but until more storms douse the area, conditions still are ripe for brush fires.

By ED QUIOCO

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 27, 2000


Don't let the recent afternoon downpours fool you.

For those who live near the Brooker Creek Preserve or woods in North Pinellas, the threat of brush fire still exists.

The weeklong string of afternoon thunderstorms significantly dampened the southern end of Pinellas County and improved conditions throughout the state. But the rains were not enough to douse the wildfire threat in North Pinellas, according to state and local officials.

"We aren't out of the woods as far as wildfires are concerned," said Patrick Dwyer, a state Division of Forestry senior forest ranger stationed in Pinellas County. "But we are better off than we were."

Portions of North Pinellas still have a drought index of 600, and parts of the 8,500-acre preserve are above 500. The drought index ranges from 0, which represents soaked, swamplike conditions, to 800, which is akin to desert aridity.

Last month, Pinellas County was one of the driest counties in the state with a drought index of more than 700.

"We have gotten our share of rain just like everyone else and the ground is a lot more moist," said Craig Huegel, the county's environmental lands division administrator. "But we aren't at the stage where we have standing water in places where there should be. Brooker Creek is still dry."

This is a crucial time for fire officials monitoring the 8,500-acre preserve in northeast Pinellas. It hasn't rained enough to wash out brush-fire conditions, and daily storms bring one thing that could spark a raging wildfire: lightning.

"Historically speaking, this is when we get most of our lightning-strike fires," Dwyer said. "Once Fourth of July is over and it's raining every day, then the preserve will start to fill up with water, so if you have a lightning strike, it's not so bad."

If North Pinellas can survive the early barrage of lightning and holiday fireworks, then the chances that the area will escape a large brush fire are greatly improved. That's because the daily storms should dump enough rain in a few weeks to wet the parched preserve.

Huegel said people who live close to the preserve or woods should not be careless. Shooting holiday fireworks into the preserve or carelessly flicking a cigarette into the woods may ignite a blaze.

"I think the wetlands are sufficiently wet now so we won't have as bad a situation as we would have had two or three weeks ago when it was really dry," Huegel said. "We are in a lot better shape and people should be feeling more comfortable but we are still on total alert."

It has rained about 6 inches since the beginning of the year at Tampa International Airport, according to the National Weather Service. That's about 11 inches less than the typical yearly rainfall at the airport.

Division of Forestry officials have responded to about 10 wildfires since the beginning of June, with the biggest blazes devouring a total of 160 acres in St. Petersburg west of Interstate I-275. So far, the largest brush fire at the preserve was a 4-acre blaze started by lightning June 8.

"We are almost pretty much on standby wondering if this is the day we have to get into action and pull all the people and resources out here to fight a fire," Huegel said. "We've been lucky so far."

- Ed Quioco can be reached at (727) 445-4183 or at quioco@sptimes.com.

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