The Heat Is Online

La Nina Fuels Florida Fires

Florida wildfire gains ground
Stephanie Watson & Tad McNair, , April 12, 2000

A massive assault from the east and west continued today, as firefighters struggled to contain a massive brush fire on the western edge of Florida's Big Cypress Swamp.

Forestry crews from as far away as Jacksonville, along with local crews from Sarasota and surrounding communities were sent in to battle the blaze, which is situated about 10 miles east of Naples, along Florida's southwest coast.

Several hundred firefighters and emergency workers are battling the blaze, using helicopters to mount an aerial assault, brush trucks to put out hot spots, fire trucks to keep the flames away from homes, and bulldozers to plow ahead of the blaze and cut fire lines.

A small community in Collier County has already been evacuated, and emergency management officials have urged people living along State Road 951 to keep a watchful eye on the situation. Heavy smoke shut down that road Tuesday, and more closings may be imminent. There is concern that if the fire moves west over State Road 951, it could threaten major housing developments, said Emergency Management spokesman Gary Arnold.

The fire, which has already consumed 14,000 acres, broke out Saturday and quickly gained strength by Sunday. The cause of the fire is currently unknown, but officials expect a full investigation once it has been contained.

No significant rain is in the forecast for the Naples area today, but scattered showers could provide at least some relief to firefighters. 

This year's fire and drought season could be even worse than last year, and once again it looks like we can blame it on La Niña.

Scientists say we are in the second year of a La Niña cycle, which is the phenomenon responsible for the gradual cooling of a large mass of water in the Pacific Ocean.

History tells us that the second year of a La Niña is typically stronger than the first, and evidence to date is bearing this out.

Earlier this month scientists from NASA reported cooler-than-average sea temperatures for March and they expect this pattern to continue through June of this year.

The cooler water temperatures typically mean less rainfall, which in turn leads to drought conditions and the possibility of more fires.

Florida is currently experiencing both. Rainfall for the state has been well below average this winter, with a deficit of as much as 14 inches in some places.

Using the Keetch-Byram drought index, which measures the amount of moisture in the soil, the Sunshine State has already surpassed the record setting dryness experienced this time last year.

From Texas to Georgia, forecasters suggest much of the South will share Florida's fate of a parched spring.

The heat is also playing a predictable factor in this burning equation.

Last week the government released records showing the 1999-2000 winter as the warmest in their 105 years of record keeping. It also marks the third year in a row that the United States experienced record warmth during the winter months.

The hotter-than-normal winter contributes to dry conditions by preventing much needed moisture from soaking into the ground.

This prolonged drought is expected to adversely affect crops, livestock and water reservoirs. But the most immediate sign of the crippling dryness can be seen in the number of fires popping up across the nation.

Already, some 400,000 acres of forests have burned across the U.S. this year. That's well above a typical year in which 40,000 acres burn.

But with little prospects for rain in the forecast and temperatures on the rise, the worst may still be ahead, meaning firefighters in Florida, and across the country, will be kept very busy.