Florida wildfire season underway; crews working multiple lightning-caused fires

The Greenway Fire burned more than 6,000 acres in Florida as of Sunday, March 25, 2018. Photo: Greater Naples Fire Rescue

Spring has sprung, and so have wildfires in parched parts of Florida.

The Greenway Fire, burned 6,600 acres by Sunday afternoon and was 20 percent contained, according to Greater Naples Fire Rescue. A 17-acre spot fire was complicating efforts, and crews have worked to keep the blaze from reaching southwest Florida communities, including VeronaWalk and Winding Cypress.

“As long as wind conditions do not unexpectedly change, the outlook for these communities looks favorable as of this report,” fire officials said Sunday.

Elsewhere, the 116th Ave SE Fire was listed at 8,000 acres and 45 percent contained Sunday, per the the Caloosahatchee Forestry Center. This fire is moving toward the Flag Pond Fire, which burned 2,600 acres and was 100 percent contained Sunday — at least one occupied RV/home was destroyed, officials said.

Each of the fires was caused by lightning, officials said.

The Florida Forest Service and the Collier County Sheriff’s Office were assisting in the effort, with teams conducting water drops in the area.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam H. Putnam and the Florida Forest Service last week urged Floridians to exercise caution due to significantly heightened wildfire risk throughout the state. Despite recent rainfall, drought conditions throughout the state are expected to continue — the Florida Forest Service has worked more than 700 wildfires across the state since the start of this year 2018.

“Florida’s wildland firefighters have proven time and again that they are prepared to put their lives on the line to keep Floridians safe,” Putnam said. “Floridians can do their part by keeping preventable human-caused wildfires at bay and preparing their families and homes for wildfire.”

Florida Fire Risk for Sunday, via Florida Forest Service website.

Texas volunteer firefighter dies after injuries from March 10 grassfire

A Texas firefighter injured two week ago while working a brushfire has died, officials confirmed.

Firefighter Larry Marusik, a member of Ellinger Volunteer Fire Department, died Friday at Brooke Army Medical Center, according to the Caldwell County Office of Emergency Management. He was 68 years old.

“The Caldwell County Office of Emergency Management offers our sincere condolences to the family and friends of Firefighter Larry Marusik,” officials said. “We also send our profound sympathies to his fellow firefighters in Fayette County, especially the Ellinger VFD.”

Marusik grew up in the community and moved back after he retired, KXAN news reported. He was a member of the fire department for four years.

Additional details about the injuries he suffered or the incident he was working were not immediately available.

California utility latest to talk power shutoff when conditions ripe for wildfires

Above:  A firefighter works a blaze in Northern California during the fires in Wine Country in October, 2017. Photo courtesy CAL FIRE. 

A San Francisco-based utility provider that has come under scrutiny in the aftermath of 2017’s California wildfires on Friday outlined a series of steps it says will reduce future fire risks — including preemptively cutting the power in areas facing high fire danger.

Pacific Gas and Electric Company is drafting guidelines to boost wildfire prevention, create new safety measures and harden the electric grid across many of the same areas devastated last year, the company said. PG&E provides utilities to a major swath of California, including Wine Country, which was ravaged by deadly fires in October.

Perhaps the most controversial proposal, a move toward preemptive power shutdowns coincides with conversations elsewhere in the state and across the country. Officials said they were refining protocols for shutting down power lines in “areas where extreme fire conditions are occurring.” They also vowed to implement “appropriate communications and resources to help inform, prepare and support” customers and communities.

The move is not without precedent or controversy.

San Diego Gas and Electric has cut power during red flag warnings and critical fire situations, hoping to prevent a utility-sparked blaze. The policy change came on the heels of the firestorm in 2007 that investigators blamed on power lines.  In December, the San Diego company cut power in some rural areas of the county, again triggering debate about fire prevention at the cost of isolating power-dependent swaths of the population who rely on electricity for communication, disaster preparation and even medical care.

Pat Hogan, PG&E senior vice president of electric operations, said the options were not ideal but remained necessary.

Per the Sacramento Bee newspaper: 

“We really view this as a last resort,” Hogan said. “It’s one public safety risk vs. another. We’re very cognizant that when we shut off the power, that creates a whole set of safety risks. You potentially impact hospitals, fire stations, police stations, traffic lights go out, garages don’t open.”

However, Hogan said “there are going to be times where the conditions on the ground are so extreme, that the potential for ignition, and the potential for spread if there was an ignition, is so high that we’re going to de-energize those lines.”

The utility, facing multiple investigations and the subject of multiple lawsuits and liability claims since October, also said it is planned to expand its weather forecasting ability by ramping up a network of company-owned weather stations.

The move is also similar to that of SDG&E that we reported on last year. 

Those tools will help inform an expanded staff of fire-focused personnel at a to-be created Wildfire Safety Operations Center that will monitor wildfire risks in real-time and coordinate prevention and response efforts with first responders, the company said.

Officials also said they would harden the electrical system by replacing wood utility poles with less-vulnerable ones and pre-treat infrastructure with fire retardant in high-risk areas.

PG&E officials said they are working with regional first responders and fire officials as the utility explores its next steps with the multi-pronged approach. The decisions are not in response to any legal trouble, officials maintained, but rather to address the ever-intensifying risks of climate change and “extreme weather events.”

“Our system and our mindset need to be laser-focused on working together to help prevent devastating wildfires like the ones in the North Bay in October and in Southern California in December from happening again, and in responding quickly and effectively if they do,” Hogan  said in a news release. “Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, which is what the Community Wildfire Safety Program is all about.”

Wildfire starts on Colorado military post, burns 2,100 acres

The Carson Midway Fire burned hundreds of acres in Colorado Friday, March 16, 2018. Photo credit: Tri-Lakes Monument Fire Protection District

Evacuations remained in place Friday night and several structures reportedly burned after a fire broke out on a Colorado military post and spread to surrounding areas, officials said. 

The fire, which started midday Friday in the southeastern portion of Fort Carson’s training area, burned approximately 2,100 acres in Pueblo and El Paso counties — on and off the Army post — by Friday night, according to the Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office. 

Firefighters from Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs, in conjunction with El Paso and Pueblo county agencies worked the Carson Midway Fire through the day Friday.

Air resources from Fort Carson worked with Bambi Buckets to assist fire fighters on the ground, officials said. Additional fixed-wing air assets have been requested and are on scene.

Approximately 100 Pueblo County residents living in the Midway Ranch area were evacuated. A large-animal shelter was also established at the Colorado State Fairgrounds.

The cause of the fire is under investigation.

Additional details about the number of structures affected were not immediately available.

Red flag warnings were issued across the region Friday. Gusty, dry conditions are forecast to return Saturday, according to the National Weather Service.

‘Catastrophic fire conditions’ possible today as Kansas blazes continue

Fires raced through grasslands in Kansas this week, drawing the National Guard, which captured this photo.

A series of wildfires have burned thousands of acres of grasslands in Kansas this week, and while relief might be in sight, there’s still a full day of volatile conditions ahead, officials say.

“Friday will be a very dangerous day for fire weather in many areas of the state. Some areas will see catastrophic fire weather conditions,” the Kansas Division of Emergency Management said.

Most of the state is under red flag or high wind warnings with forecast to gusts up to 40 mph in some areas Friday. Temperatures around 70 degrees are expected to drop into the 50s this weekend, with rain in the forecast, according to the National Weather Service.

Fires erupted Wednesday. Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer made an emergency declaration for three of the fires burning in Rice County and deployed Black Hawk helicopters from the Kansas National Guard to assist in the response.

According to The Wichita Eagle, state officials tracked 45 fires across the state on Thursday alone, with several breaking out in the Kansas City area. The fires burned an estimated 13,000 acres, and many remained active or out of control.

More detailed assessments of acreage or causes were not immediately available.

About 20 percent of the state is classified as being under an “extreme drought,” according to the latest report from the U.S. Drought Monitor.

NOAA report: Warmer-than-average spring, worsening drought across West

Above: Areas of the United States where the average temperature for April-June 2018 is favored to be in the upper (reddish colors) or lower (blue colors) third of the 1981-2010 seasonal temperature record. Within a given area, the intensity of the colors indicates higher or lower chances for a warm or a cool outcome, not bigger or smaller anomalies. For example, both Texas and Tennessee face better than even chances of experiencing well above average spring temperatures, but the chances are higher in Texas (60-70%) than in Tennessee (40-50%). NOAA Climate.gov map, based on data from NOAA CPC. Photo credit: NOAA

Spring is likely to be warmer than the historical normal this year in much of the country with a worsening drought situation across swaths of the West, according to the latest report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The report, issued Thursday, encompasses April-June.

The Northern Rockies is the only region leaning toward below-average temperatures this spring, forecasters said.

In addition to increased probabilities of warmer temperatures across much of the U.S. — and especially the Southwest — the outlook suggests drought is likely to develop or worsen in Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and part of Utah, Colorado and Kansas.

“It appears La Nina is on its last legs,” said Mike Halpert, with the Climate Prediction Center. “As sea surface temperature anomalies weaken, their influence on springtime temperature and precipitation should also weaken.”

Drought is likely to worsen or develop across much of the Southwest quadrant of the contiguous United States this spring. Pockets of drought are predicted to continue in the Southeast and Oregon.  Map by NOAA Climate.gov, based on data from the Climate Prediction Center.
Drought is likely to worsen or develop across much of the Southwest quadrant of the contiguous United States this spring. Pockets of drought are predicted to continue in the Southeast and Oregon. Map by NOAA Climate.gov, based on data from the Climate Prediction Center.

The outlook also noted a moderate risk of flooding in the Ohio River Valley basin and lower Mississippi River where streamflows and soil moisture are above normal after recent heavy rain.