No Minutemen. No quill-penned declarations of independence. This Fourth of July weekend, rain is clearing the way for the festiveness of fireworks.
By ROSALIND HELDERMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 30, 2000
Two weeks ago, fireworks displays were an endangered species. Outdoor burning was banned across Florida. Perilous tales of drought were all around.
On Tuesday, the rocket's red glare will be seen far and wide.
Counties throughout the Tampa Bay area have all now lifted bans on the sale and use of fireworks, just in time for Fourth of July celebrations. Bans on outdoor burning that had remained in effect for about half of Florida's counties were lifted Wednesday.
Chris Kintner of the Florida Division of Forestry said those who watch forest fires are comfortable with those decisions.
"Most of our area has gotten sufficient rain, and fires are dropping off," she said.
The division is monitoring three fires in Hillsborough County and 25 fires in Polk County, but the rest of the area is fire-free.
Drought indexes, which can range between 0 and 800 and have climbed into the 700s here in recent months, have been dropping steadily. The index for Pinellas County has been near 300 for the week, while in Pasco the index has dropped to 162. Hillsborough County has reached a relatively wet 88.
That's good news for Tom Hromyak, manager of Phantom Fireworks. He said business was hit hard by the two-week ban on fireworks but has picked up quickly in time for the holiday. Now he advises people to be careful, but to enjoy their fireworks.
"We always stress safety and caution when using our products. You should always have water handy, even for small stuff like sparklers," Hromyak said.
Firefighters warn that no amount of rain can ward off the danger of bottle rockets and other illegal fireworks. In Florida, fireworks that leave the ground or explode are illegal. But such devices still are available for certain agricultural and commercial uses.
"Besides getting people not to use them, there's not a whole lot you can do," said Lt. Chris Bengivengo, of St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue.
Continued dry conditions could make such devices even more dangerous. Weather watchers warn that Floridians shouldn't get carried away by the recent rains. The drought is not over.
"Definitely not. We've only had a week of rain, and we've had 20 months of drought. It's not going to go away that quick," said Eric Oglesby, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
Still, Oglesby said the dry conditions are over and Tampa Bay now will see a normal, even wet summer. Sunny days and stormy nights are expected for most of the rest of the summer, and by fall, water levels should return to normal. Forecasters are predicting scattered evening thunderstorms with highs near 90 degrees for the Fourth of July.
So far, 4.43 inches of rain has fallen at Tampa International Airport since June 1. Only 3.11 inches fell in the first five months of the year until that point, bringing yearly totals to 7.54 inches.
Despite the recent storms, the Southwest Florida Water Management District board voted unanimously earlier this week to extend once-a-week watering restrictions indefinitely. That could change if larger storms bring more heavy rain to the area. Hurricane season, which runs through Nov. 30, can provide opportunities to end droughts in one fell swoop, dumping inches of rain at once.
"You almost wish for an off-shore hurricane or two to bring rain to the area," said St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting an unusually active hurricane season, but James Franklin of the National Hurricane Center said it's impossible to tell whether the area will get helpful, mild rainmaking tropical weather or killer hurricanes.
"It's certainly true that a lot of droughts are ended by weaker tropical activity. Whether that's what we get or whether we get another Hugo or Georges, we can't say," he said. "Obviously, you don't want one of those to end your drought."