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Weekend rains welcome as we head into teeth of wildfire season

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Published:   |   Updated: May 1, 2014 at 12:41 PM

As Florida begins its annual transition into the rainy season, the eyes of the state are on the skies and the ground as we wait to see when the afternoon rains begin and if the soil will stay wet enough until then to prevent most wildfires.

Meteorologists with the National Weather Service in Ruskin say April’s rainfall in the Tampa area was an inch less than normal, which doesn’t bode well for wildfire worriers. But, that was balanced in March, when a couple inches above normal rainfall fell.

January and February produced slightly below normal rainfall, but not by much.

The end result is that officials with the Florida Division of Forestry are hoping we’ll have a mild wildfire season.

May typically is a high-risk month for brush and wildfires because it is a transitional time between the dry winter season and the wet summer season. It’s a time when the temperatures rise and lightning begins to crackle. The first weekend of May in Tampa looks like it’s going to be wet, though, with a 50 to 60 percent chance of rain.

The average rainfall in May is 2.1 inches, the weather service says. The average rainfall in June, when daily thunderstorms begin, is about 6.7 inches.

“We’re starting to get lightning storms coming through now,” said Chris Kintner, spokeswoman for the forestry division’s region that includes Hillsborough, Polk and Pinellas counties. “We had some across the state yesterday. The potential still is there, but with rainfall expected this weekend, the (wildfire) threat is not as great as it usually is.”

The wildfire season ends when the regular afternoon rainstorms begin, she said, and that’s usually not until the summer.

“April and May can be kind of rough,” she said. May offers up a narrow window “when we start getting showers generated by the heat. Sometimes when lightning hits remote areas, it takes a while to spot those fires and they get going.”

No major fires are happening in West Central Florida right now, she said, though state firefighters are battling sizeable blazes in the Everglades National Park and in Volusia County, an area she called a “notorious hot bed for fire activity.”

A brush fire did break out in Pasco County on Wednesday, scorching several acres near Lake Drive and Oconee Boulevard in the Moon Lake community. The fire, which was extinguished by Pasco County firefighters and units from the forestry division, had burned about six acres along with three small boats abandoned at an illegal dump site. No homes had been damaged, Pasco County firefighters said, and the cause of the fire was under investigation.

In a statewide advisory that extends through the end of June, the forestry division said the winter was warm and wet. Rainfall over the winter months was above normal, particularly in northern parts of the state. In central and southern Florida, mostly normal rainfall amounts fell.

Freezes and frost kill plants and grass, and by April, May and June that dried-out flora can be fuel for wildfires. Without a winter with lots of freezing temperatures, like this past one, there is not as much fuel for fires to feast on.

El Niño conditions are developing in the Pacific Ocean, though it’s “unlikely to be a significant consideration for our weather patterns the next few months,” the online advisory said.

So if everything remains normal for the next few months, the forestry division said, the expectation is for a below-to-near-normal fire potential for the northern part of the state and more normal expectations in the southern half of the state.

“There could be areas in the south where above normal wildfire activity can emerge, particularly if any significant stretches without rainfall occur,” the advisory said. “Regularly recurring rainfall, even if not particularly heavy, would keep severe problems from emerging. Assuming a normal onset of the rainy season, wildfire activity should subside as it seasonally does.”

The weather service reported that April was fairly dry, with .29 inches of rain through Tuesday in Tampa, which was about 1.1 inches below normal.

A saving grace was that nearly 5 inches of rain fell in March, almost 2 inches above normal. The difference, almost, came in one day, when 1.7 inches fell on March 29.

Overall, the weather is well within normal ranges, said Tom Dougherty, observations program leader with the weather service in Ruskin.

“We’re not looking at any big swings either way,” he said. “We’re going for temperatures to be a little above normal and rain to be a little below normal through next 60 to 90 days.”

He said Pacific Ocean conditions, which can drive weather across the United States, is in a neutral phase now.

“There’s not a whole lot to talk about,” he said. El Niño conditions may be forming now, he said, but “We’ve had a period of neutral activity over the past year.”

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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