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More than 100 wildfires have scorched our 'abnormally dry' state, and it could get worse

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A brushfire burns near Highway 50 outside Titusville, March 15 - PHOTO BY JOEY ROULETTE
  • Photo by Joey Roulette
  • A brushfire burns near Highway 50 outside Titusville, March 15

The South Florida Water Management District has since issued a water-shortage warning for the 8 million residents living in its 16-county jurisdiction, which stretches from south Orlando to Key West. Earlier in April, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency after a rash of wildfires and the potential for more. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said at a news conference in Tallahassee last week that this is the most active fire season Florida has seen since 2011, with firefighters battling 106 active wildfires covering 124,000 acres.

And all this is before Florida's fire season peaks in late April, May and June.

Officials say people should expect more fires and further water restrictions as the state waits for relief via summer rains. While most people agree the drought is a recurring weather pattern, some climate experts and environmentalists have gone even further, saying warmer temperatures could intensify Florida's drought into something more dangerous.

"A year ago, we were having record rainfall, we had flooding issues, discharge issues – much of the state was dealing with the issue and the problems surrounding too much water," Putnam said. "And 365 days later, we find ourselves dealing with the problems of not enough water and drought. ... Extremes beget extremes."

Just how bad is Florida's drought?

It's not bad enough that the governor has asked people to pray for rain.

Back in July 1998, the dry season was so nightmarish it was described as "Florida's hellfire." Thousands of fires burned across the state, scorching more than 450,000 acres. Flagler County's 35,000 residents were all forced to evacuate. In a desperate moment, Gov. Lawton Chiles even banned fireworks and asked Floridians to "join me and pray for rain."

Florida's current drought has not reached that level. Not yet, anyway.

Florida Forest Service firefighters in Oviedo, near Chuluota - PHOTO BY MONIVETTE CORDEIRRO
  • Photo by Monivette Cordeirro
  • Florida Forest Service firefighters in Oviedo, near Chuluota

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows that parts of Central and Southwest Florida have intensified to a severe drought this month, with surrounding areas having a moderate drought. Chris Fenimore, with the National Centers for Environmental Information, wrote the latest report for Florida and says more places in Northeast Florida and the Panhandle are showing signs of being "abnormally dry."

"We're talking about 50 percent or less than normal precipitation," he says. "Typically with a severe drought, you can expect water restrictions and shortages, fires, and damaged crops and pastures."

Fenimore says severe droughts like the one in Central Florida usually happen once every 10 years.

"We certainly can expect more intense drought episodes as we're entering a warmer world," he says. "You'll also probably see more intense flooding and downpour as the climate changes."

The last rainfall to really hit Florida was in October, when Hurricane Matthew ripped through the state's east coast, says David Zierden, a professor at Florida State University who is also the state's climatologist. This past fall and into early winter, Zierden says, weak conditions from the La Niña climate pattern, which makes the Pacific Ocean cooler and Southern states drier, set the stage for Florida's drier winter. Lake Okeechobee, which had an overflow problem last year after a wet summer, has now dropped its water level below the minimum range.

"We're having a very active wildfire season, which is certainly concerning," he says. "But June will be the recovery month with afternoon showers. It should be a short-term thing if the summer rainy season is as good as usual. If the summer doesn't produce and we go through a normal dry season again next winter, that's when the problems will start to compound."

Water districts across the state are encouraging Floridians to use their water wisely. Bill Graf, spokesperson for the SFWMD, says that for now, residents should observe the twice-a-week watering restriction. If people don't voluntarily use less water, more restrictions could go into place and officials could impose penalties.

"When it's raining, there's less attention paid to it, but with this drought seemingly getting more entrenched, we want to encourage enforcement of those rules," he says.

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