Severe Weather Awareness Week: Wildfires and Extreme Temperatures
Friday is the final day of Florida’s Severe Weather Awareness Week, when we will cover a different topic in weather safety every day. Stay informed by following Florida Storms, the Florida Division of Emergency Management and your local National Weather Service office on social media.
It’s no secret Florida can get very, very hot. Locals are accustomed to it while visitors flock to the Sunshine State to escape colder temperatures. But this heat is not to be taken lightly and can threaten your life and safety.
According to NOAA, the state just experienced its fifth warmest year in 2022, with the statewide annual temperature up 2.3 degrees from the 20th century average. An analysis from Climate Central in 2022 finds that overnight temperatures have risen an average of 2.9 degrees in a 11 Florida cities. When nighttime temperatures don’t adequately cool down, your body does not have the chance to recover from high daytime temperatures, putting strain on your body as it tries to regulate its own temperature.
“We’re kind of used to it, but people are unaware of how quickly it can effect the body,” said Amy Godsey, chief meteorologist at the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
“We have heat related illnesses and fatalities in our hospitals every year,” she said.
According to the National Weather Service, heat is the number one killer out of all weather hazards by a 30-year average.
Children, the elderly and those who work outdoors tend to be the most vulnerable to heat illness. Heat exhaustion can manifest as dizziness, thirst, heavy sweating, nausea and weakness. If this happens, immediately move to a cooler area and drink water. Seek medical attention if symptoms don’t improve. Heat stroke, on the other hand, causes confusion, dizziness, hot skin that can be dry or damp and a rapid, strong pulse. If this happens, call 911 immediately. A victim of heat stroke can lose consciousness and become permanently disabled, or even die.
The National Weather Service will issue heat advisories, watches and warnings in the case of excessive heat. Godsey said these notifications are typically not pushed to phones automatically like other hazards are, so make sure you have a way to receive information through your local government or local news media. Take steps to keep yourself safe by wearing light colored, loose fitting clothing, staying indoors during the hottest part of the day and staying hydrated, said Godsey.
Excessive heat doesn’t just put stress on the body, it also puts stress on the environment.
Drought occurs when precipitation falls too low. As of publishing, about 70% of the state is in drought. The U.S. Drought Monitor currently estimates over 1 million Floridians are experiencing drought in their area.
The intersection of dry conditions and an increase in winds is a recipe for wildfires. Dry vegetation can ignite and easily by carried by the wind, spreading quickly. In Florida, wildfire season is 12 months long, with peak activity from the beginning of January to the onset of rainy season in June. For that reason, it’s important to practice fire safety year-round.
“Lots of us [in the fire science community] say the future is going to be smokey,” said David Godwin, the director of the Southern Fire Exchange and a fire scientist at the University of Florida.
One of the main tools used to fight wildfires are prescribed fires. Essentially, these managed fires reduce build-up of natural flammable materials in Florida’s forests. Though many people find them a nuisance, they reduce the chances of unpredictable wildfires. Godwin said between the necessity of prescribed fires and the ongoing threat of wildfires, there is a growing need to understand fire safety.
“It’s important for everyone in Florida to understand we don’t get a break from wildfires in our state, and we need to take proactive steps throughout the year,” Godwin said.
He said there are three things Floridians should do: prep your home, your yard, and yourself.
First, a minimum of 30 feet around your home should be cleared of dried and dead vegetation. That includes removing dead leaves or branches from your roof and gutters. Even small embers blown from fires can ignite your home. Flammable materials such as gas and propane tanks should be moved well away from the structure of your home.
Godwin said to keep your yard mowed and keep your grass irrigated. He said some plants, such as palmettos, are exceptionally flammable and should be trimmed down. Landscaping mulch is also very flammable, so consider switching to rock or gravel.
Godwin said the highest risks areas in Florida are rural communities surrounded by lots of vegetation or unmanaged land. Those who live in places like this should be prepared with an evacuation bag should you need to leave quickly.
Both the National Weather Service and the Florida Forest Service issue information on wildfire conditions daily.