“We’re just finishing up the dry season,” said Robyn Felix, media relations manager for the Southwest Florida Water Management District’s Brooksville office. “Our dry season is October through May, so now we’re just a couple of weeks away from our summer rainy season kicking in. It’s really mid-June before we start to see those afternoon thunderstorms kick in every day.”
If driving through a massive downpour on Interstate 4 or getting caught in the rain without an umbrella sounds unpleasant, keep in mind that rain can actually be a lifesaver about now.
For one thing, heavy rains will help counties now operating under a burn ban, like Lake and Osceola counties, which have been facing the risk of wildfires in rural areas that could potentially encroach on urban areas.
In Osceola, this is more than just a theoretical matter. Earlier this week, Osceola County Fire Rescue personnel had to tackle a 100-acre brushfire at U.S. 441 and Rogers Road in the southeastern portion of the county. At the same time, fires burned near Deseret Ranch at the Bull Creek Wildlife Management District in the northeast portion of the county.
Smoke was so heavy in some places that electronic signs advised motorists to drive with caution at the northbound lane on Nova Road and U.S. 192, the northbound lane of Narcoossee Road at U.S. 192, and on Boggy Creek Road at Narcoossee Road for the southbound lane.
Osceola Fire Chief Richard Collins issued a warning to residents that “Osceola County remains under a burn ban until current drought conditions improve. Until then, we are being aggressive in stopping the spread of the fires.”
Residents with respiratory problems living near the Osceola/Orange County line were urged to stay indoors until the smoke cleared.
Likewise, the Lake County Department of Public Safety just enacted a countywide burn ban for all of unincorporated Lake County, until further notice. Any burning there is a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to a 60-day imprisonment and a $500 fine. The ban prohibits all outdoor burning that hasn’t been permitted by the Florida Division of Forestry, including yard waste, bon fires and open-pit campfires on private or county property.
Any outdoor campfire for cooking or heat has to be done within an approved fire container or enclosure, such as a grill or outdoor fireplace, rather than an open campfire.
Felix said she understands why counties are taking these precautions.
“Things have been very dry,” she said. “We got a below normal rainfall in April and May, so things are very dry right now — which is normal for around here. Hopefully we’ll start to see rain this month.”
At the same time, the Water Management District has been trying to encourage water conservation measures, since even heavy rains will not aleviate one simple fact.
“We were in a four-year drought,” she said. “We’ve pretty much come out of that, although lakes are usually the last water resource to come out of a drought, so we are still seeing many below average levels in lakes in the region.
“But the rest of our water resources are doing fairly well,” she added. “Our aquifer levels and river levels, those are the type of things we’ll see quick rebounds in. But it’s just going to take a long time for the lakes to recover from the drought.”
In fact, the Southwest Florida Water Management District just launched a new “Watch the weather, wait to water” campaign, urging Florida residents to let Mother Nature do their watering for them this summer.
During the months of June, July, August and September, yards don’t need more than a 3/4 inch of water every two to three days. If it has rained, people are urged to turn off their irrigation system.
“We’re always doing long term planning for developing water supplies and looking out into the future, to see what the demand will be over the next 20 to 25 years,” Felix said. “But in the short term, basically conservation means being non-wasteful with your water use.”
The agency is asking people to follow some basic tips, including if their yard shows signs that it needs water, check the local forecast to see if rain is on the way.
Also, use a rain gauge to determine how much rain your yard has already received, get a rain sensor and make sure it’s working properly, and install a rain barrel to capture excess rainwater.
Residents can get more information about water conservation, and even win a free rain barrel, by logging on to www.WaterMatters.org/WatchTheWeather/.
In Lake County, residents are being urged to follow some wildfire prevention tips, including removing all dead limbs, needles and debris from rain gutters, not doing any open burning, regularly disposing of newspapers and trash, clearing flammable vegetation from around and under structures, storing flammable materials in approved safety cans, and never throwing a lighted cigarette from the window of a car or leaving a burning cigarette on the ground.
Lake County Fire Operations Chief James Dickerson said it’s normally not difficult to spread the word to residents when a burn ban goes into effect.
“Typically what we do is it’s notified in the paper and the word gets around pretty quick, because people like to burn trash in their yard and things like that,” he said. “We allow cooking fires, but we really encourage the people to be careful, especially when they’re discarding their hot coals. We have very good voluntary compliance. We try to get through this dry period into the wet season, and we pray for rain.”
Unlike Osceola County, brush fires haven’t been a problem in Lake County — yet.
“We have been fortunate here in Lake County,” Dickerson said. “We haven’t had anything significant — and we don’t want anything significant. The problem is we came thorugh a really dry May and we’ve had some really hot temperatures. It’s drier than normal. Three years ago, in 2008, we had a pretty significant dry period, and that was earlier in the spring, which is not good because the vegetation is dead and the winds are high and the rain is low. But the last couple of years have been normal.”
For more information about wildfire prevention, call the Lake County Department of Public Safety at 352-343-9458.
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