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Dry conditions mean wildfire threat on the rise

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By Michael D. Bates

When it comes to hot, dry conditions, Citrus County is not in as dire straits as South Florida, where four counties — Glades, Hendry, Lee and Okeechobee — are currently under a burn ban due to increased risk of wildfires.

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Still, given the scarcity of rain, it wouldn’t take much for a wildfire to start anytime, anywhere in Citrus County or the region, according to Bryan Williams, a meteorologist with Florida Forest Service (FFS).

Williams told members of the Withlacoochee Wildfire Services Coordinating Council last month that the dry season, which normally begins in April, has already started and drought-like conditions are upon us.

Craig Stevens, the county’s deputy fire chief, said Citrus is in the 300-399 range on the Keetch-Byram Index, which measures drought conditions. When that number edges close to 600, it’s time to be especially concerned, Stevens said. The index ranges from zero at the wettest conditions to 800 at the driest.

“We are approaching the point where we may need to go to the county commissioners to enact a burn ban,” he said.

Firefighters have responded to more than 30 brush fires, or wildfires, in Citrus County since January. They have ranged in size from less than 1 acre to 30 acres. The largest so far occurred in January when a downed power line, fueled by strong winds, burned 70 acres off Ash White Terrace near Crystal River. No injuries were reported.

Stevens said it is imperative residents be “fire-wise” because the rainy season is still some two-and-a-half months away.

“We’re encouraging people not to burn unless they absolutely have to,” Stevens said. “And definitely make sure all burns remain attended at all times, whether it’s yard trash or a bonfire.”

Stevens said homeowners need to maintain a 25- to 30-foot buffer zone between their house and the wood line to allow for emergency vehicles to better access the property should wildfire break out. In that zone, people need to keep the grass mowed and clear any tree limbs, leaves or other debris that can catch fire.

Being a semi-rural county with many trees, Citrus County is susceptible to wildfires, he said.

Florida Forest Service has issued a press release saying dry conditions and gusty winds have led to erratic and dangerous wildfire activity statewide, threatening homes and endangering the public. Dangerous wildfire conditions are expected to continue to increase over the next few months, the FFS said.

On March 5 alone, FFS responded to 26 wildfires that affected several Florida communities and burned more than 2,500 acres. Two significant fires in Lee County on March 6 affected more than 120 homes.

And firefighters this month have been battling a 7,500-acre brush fire in Collier County.

Florida Fire Service urges people to take these steps to help prevent brush fires:

* Develop and implement a family wildfire action plan.

* Call 911 or a local FFS field unit office immediately in the event of a wildfire.

* Obey Florida’s outdoor burning laws, outlined at www.freshfromflorida.com.

* Never burn on windy days.

* Always keep a water source and suppression tools on hand when burning yard debris.

* Never leave an outdoor fire or hot grill unattended.

* Avoid parking vehicles on dry grass.

To see the locations of all active wildfires in Florida, the public can download the “FLBurnTools” app in Apple’s App Store or on Google Play.

Contact Chronicle reporter Michael D. Bates at 352-563-5660, mbates@chronicleonline.com.