By Samantha Joseph
TREASURE COAST - Don't assume the rainy season will douse the threat of brush fires, forestry officials said.
While increased rainfall reduces the chances that wet plants will catch on fire, it also gives rise to a new threat: lightning.
"People think it's raining, we can't have wildfires, but that's wrong because lightning is a factor," said Melissa Yunas, wildfire mitigation specialist for the Florida Forest Service's Okeechobee district, which covers Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River, Okeechobee, Highlands and Glades counties.
In fact, this year alone lightning strikes have accounted for 26 wildfires across the Treasure Coast to date.
And as the region gears up for rain and perhaps daily thunderstorms, area fire fighters are urging residents to take steps to prevent fires.
In St. Lucie County, lightning strikes accounted for five blazes so far this year, according to Forestry Service data.
In Indian River County, 45 percent of the 11 wildfires of the year were the result of lightning, and in Martin County, it accounted for 16 fires or 53 percent of the year's blazes.
Last week, a strike off Jensen Beach Boulevard and Savannah Road ignited a fire in a segment of Martin County rich with scrub and shrub.
The fire was one of 12 that the Forest Service fought this month, as lightning-caused flames burned 532 acres across the Treasure Coast and Okeechobee, officials said.
"Lightning is the single greatest cause of wildfires along the Treasure Coast," Ms. Yunas said.
And the region's lush, tropical forest-like vegetation doesn't help matters any, quickly replenishing itself with rain and becoming dry and brittle in heat.
That's why officials are urging residents across the Treasure Coast to clear flammable material and plants from their properties and clearing drains and gutters.
Some plants pose special threats. Palmettos, for instance, whether green or dry have a high heat density. Cabbage palms, too, are conducive to fire, as flames typically quickly use the plants as ladders to reach heights of up 12 or 15 feet.
Scrub, shrubs, twigs, dry leaves or scrub oak can all provide fuel for fires, officials said.
"Anything dead is more likely to catch on fire - pine needles, stick, tweeds, palm fronds- those are usually the starting sources of fires," Ms. Yunas said. "Scrub areas are extremely flammable. You just have to be aware if you build your house there that areas that are natural like that require precaution."