Miami-Dade County

Summer drought sparks more brush fires than usual

Fire crews battle a large brush fire in Southwest Miami-Dade on Sunday, April 19, 2015.
Fire crews battle a large brush fire in Southwest Miami-Dade on Sunday, April 19, 2015. El Nuevo Herald

The fires keep burning. And burning.

Across Miami-Dade and Broward counties, 81 brush fires have singed nearly 6,363 acres over the past 3 1/2 months, according to the Florida Forest Service.

During the same stretch last year, 51 fires were recorded.

Opposite ends of the weather spectrum are contributing to the fires this year: lightning from summer storms and uncommon dry weather causing drought conditions.

Last Monday, two fires were sparked by lightning in Northwest Miami-Dade within five miles of each other. Together, they burned more than 500 acres of grass and trees, close to the Florida Department of Corrections South Florida Reception Center at 13910 NW 41st St.

“We have the case of urban interface fires, which can affect the citizens of Miami,” said Scott Peterich, a wildfire mitigation specialist from Florida Forest Service. He explained that fires are classified as urban interface when they move from unoccupied land into developed areas.

In April, a fire scorched 300 acres in Kendall, and firefighters scrambled to save The Pit BBQ Restaurant on Southwest Eighth Street. The fire also made for treacherous driving conditions. Southwest Eighth Street was shut down in both directions from 152nd Avenue to Krome Avenue because of low visibility.

“More citizens die from fires in the wild that put smoke on the highway, causing low visibility,” Peterich said.

Experts advise people who live in or near wild fire zones to remove leaves, twigs and pine needles from roofs and to eliminate flammable vegetation. Debris or brush piles and propane tanks should not be located near a house.

Peterich said the contributing factors to this summer’s abundance of wildfires are lack of rainfall, relative humidity, wind speed, wind direction and vegetation — specifically Sawgrass and Pine Rockland from the Everglades, which can cause a fire to move quickly. Pine Rockland is unique to South Florida and the Bahamas.

For this time of year, South Florida has been experiencing an unusually low amount of rainfall.

The Keetch-Byram Drought Index — a reference scale that wildland fire agencies use to estimate dryness of soil — ranges from 0, which is highly saturated soil, to 800, which is desert-like conditions. Currently both Miami-Dade and Broward counties are rated higher than 550 on the index, which is significantly more dry than last year. In mid-July 2014, Miami-Dade was at 252 and Broward was at 170.

“When you start to get above 500, fire has a tendency to spread quicker,” Peterich said, explaining that the high drought index provides the right settings for lightning or even sparks from an ATV to set off a brush fire.

Arson also has caused problems.

Earlier this month, Miami-Dade police arrested Erick Padron, 20, on multiple charges of arson. Padron is believed to have started two fires in Larry and Penny Thompson Park in 2014, one at the Rockdale Pineland Preserve in 2014 and three on a homeowner’s private property in Southwest Miami-Dade in May.

Then there is fire-setting by the experts.

The Florida Forest Service conducts multiple prescribed burns annually, to reduce overgrown live and dead vegetation, which fuels wild fires. Additionally, prescribed fires recycle nutrients, increase plant and animal diversity and maintain an open canopy for sunlight to reach plants closer to the ground.

“Our burn teams create a detailed prescribed fire plan and adhere to the plan insuring a safe burn for both the forest and public,” Peterich said.

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