Despite record rainfall, brush fire threat continues in driest areas

Fire crews keep watch on brush fire conditions
Posted at 5:37 PM, Apr 24, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-25 05:24:54-04

The rain on Sunday was long overdue for parts of South Florida. It was a nice break from the drought plaguing much of the state.

But on Monday, we learned the record-breaking rain was not enough to completely pull us out of the fire danger.

"It's going to get drier, it's going to get hotter, warmer. Going to have the winds," said Jeff Curl, a senior forest ranger in St. Lucie County for the Florida Forest Service.

Despite the rain, Curl said it wasn't enough to prevent one group of dry grass and trees from igniting again.

It was enough to soak shallow grass roots but for the deeper vegetation like trees and brush -- the kind that fuels the fires -- the rain was not heavy or long enough to soak the most parched areas.

Curl spent the day checking the scene of a fire that's been burning since April 6 in St. Lucie County, far west of Port St. Lucie. It burned nearly 300 acres.

"We patrol the fire lines throughout the day and were looking for any kind of smokes or return areas," he said, as we accompanied him in his brush truck. "We've been working this area pretty diligently."

While checking an area of burned trees, Curl used a technique called 'cold trailing'.

"You take an un-gloved hand and put the back of your hand on the ground, feeling for any hot spots," he explained. 

Luckily, Curl found no hotspots during his checks in the McCarty Ranch area. 

"We try to conserve water as much as possible, so if we were to spray water here, it would be useless," he said.

We drove through one area that was supposed to be a swamp. This is the driest year we've seen since 2011.

"Instead of water that would be coming through your door, we're driving around in dry sand right now," said Curl.

During the drive, we could hear other crews calling in hot spots and smoke sightings in Okeechobee County, where 400 acres burned last week.

While Curl says the rain didn't stop the fire danger, but it did give his crews some breathing room.

"The rain did help us, in a sense, to be able to rehab our equipment and fix anything that's wrong. Gives us a few days to prep, get ready," he said.

Florida Forest Service spokeswoman Melissa Yunas said while other parts of South Florida saw up to six inches of rain, some areas north of Martin County just saw trace amounts -- a half inch or less.

"We're going to see the wildfire activity escalate until about June or July when we see those daily afternoon thunderstorms," she said. "We need a good soaking rain for a couple of weeks. What it will do is saturate into the soil where the shallower roots are, then it will start saturating where the larger root shrub systems and tree system is."

Randy Smith with the South Florida Water Management District says the rain did provide a good boost to canals, lakes and other surface water areas.

"Even with the six inches in some of the areas, they're still showing a rainfall deficit for the dry season," he explained.

Smith says for some areas, the rains were good enough to keep your grass green between 10 days and two weeks. But they are still urging people to cut back on water use by continuing to enforce the water shortage warning.

"This is a good time to shut her sprinklers off and take advantage of what mother nature gave us," he said.

Curl has a message for people living in areas still threatened by fires.

"Have a plan. Be ready to go. Have your stuff packed. Know that we are doing our job at 150 percent. We're giving it everything we can, keeping on top of it," he stressed.

With humidity levels down, FFS expects more brush fires to spark somewhere around the region soon, so be mindful of accidentally starting any fires through cigarette use, electrical equipment, or even driving your vehicle over dry grass.

FFS crews, both on the ground and from the skies, will continue to monitor the region for flare ups. You can track current conditions by clicking here.