Florida Left High and Dry and More Prone to Wildfires

In 2011, it was Texas that went up in flames, with a historic drought and searing heat wave leading to the worst wildfire season on record. A year later, another southern state affected by intense drought is bracing for a destructive wildfire season: Florida.

While Texas has received drought-busting rains during recent months, long-term drought in the Southeast has created ideal conditions for large wildfires there. Water levels in swampy areas of southern Georgia and northern Florida are at historically low levels, and already, Florida firefighters are struggling to contain a large fire — 35,000-acre blaze in the Pinehook Swamp, near the Georgia state line.

Satellite view of the County Line fire Credit: NASA.

This fire, known as the County Line Fire, has spread dense smoke across northern Florida, reducing visibility to as low as one-half mile at times. Officials fear it won’t be the last large wildfire to affect Florida this season.

So far this year, nearly 1,400 wildfires, most of them quite small, have burned about 90,000 acres in the Sunshine State, and the peak of wildfire season is still to come.

“It does put us on edge . . . we’re already so busy so early in the fire season and we know the worst is yet to come,” said Annaleasa Winter, a wildfire mitigation specialist with the Florida Forest Service.

The County Line Fire, started by a lightning strike on April 5, worries state fire officials, since it is burning vegetation below the surface as well as above, making it far more difficult to extinguish than typical forest fires.

“This fire has the potential to get much bigger,” Winter said.

Florida has distinct wet and dry seasons, but this year the dry season, which typically runs from about late October to late May, truly left the state high and dry. Florida has had its third-driest, two-year period on record, and much of the state has experienced its driest one-year period when measured from April 2011 to April 2012.

“The next six weeks or so will indeed be the peak of the Florida grassfire/wildfire season. The situation is very serious,” said Victor Murphy, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, via email.

Murphy said the recent dryness is probably linked to an area of cooler than average waters in the eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean, a phenomenon known as La Nina. La Nina conditions can influence the jet stream in ways that steer storms away from Florida during the winter months, leaving the state with a precipitation shortfall heading into the hot summer.

The La Nina conditions that existed during the past two winters have finally waned, which may eventually help change weather patterns to favor more rainfall in the Southeast. However, climate outlooks call for below-average precipitation for at least the next month, and the most recent U.S. drought outlook calls for drought conditions to endure through the summer in much of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.

Map of real-time streamflow compared to historical streamflow. Credit: USGS.

The drought in the Southeast comes in the context of an extraordinary spring so far in the U.S. During March, more than 15,000 warm temperature records — including many in the Southeast — were shattered during an unprecedented heat wave. The warm weather only served to dry soils even more.

Global climate change has been implicated as a factor that may have intensified the Texas drought last year, and droughts are expected to become more frequent and severe in many parts of the world as the climate continues to warm. Wildfire patterns are already shifting in response to climate change, particularly in parts of the Western U.S., where spring snowmelt is occurring earlier, leading to drier and more fire-prone conditions during the summer. Studies have shown that even small increases in average temperatures can raise the risk of heat waves, droughts, and wildfires. Already this spring, wildfires have affected Colorado, where snowfall was below average this winter, and drought conditions are affecting California, New Mexico, and other states, elevating wildfire concerns there too.

The dry conditions aren’t only raising the specter of major wildfires. Extremely low water levels in the rivers of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina are also aggravating long simmering tensions over water rights. Georgia has a heavy reliance on surface water for its drinking water supply and for power plants, and has been locked in a dispute with Alabama and Florida over the allocation of water from Lake Lanier, a 38,000-acre reservoir and recreation area in north Georgia.

Georgia would like to use as much water from Lake Lanier as possible to satisfy the growing water demands of the Atlanta metro area, whereas Alabama and Florida are seeking rights to the same water for hydroelectric power generation and endangered species protection.

In February, the three states appealed to the Supreme Court to settle the dispute.

Many experts have warned that water disputes such as this one are becoming more likely due to a combination of growing populations and altered weather patterns associated with global warming.

As the National Weather Service’s Murphy pointed out, the last time that Florida had a two-year drought this severe was during 1955-56 and 1956-57, and the state’s population has increased by about 400 percent since then, from 4.5 million to about 19 million people. This has pushed homes and businesses closer to wildfire-prone regions, and added to water stress.