Fire officials on standby as fire season kicks into gear

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SARASOTA - The heat is on for fire officials as brush fires break out across the Suncoast. Over the past week, dozens of fires have broken out -- in several cases forcing the closure of major roads.

I-75 has been moving normally lately, but that wasn't the case this past weekend when several portions on the Suncoast were shut down due to smoke. Florida Highway Patrol even closed Alligator Alley Monday morning after brush fires made driving too dangerous, though that has since re-opened.

Officials say we're seeing perfect conditions now for a dangerous fire season, and those conditions are happening earlier than we're used to. "It’s a little earlier than what we're used to, but we've had several down in the North Port area," says Patrick Mahoney with the Florida Forestry Service.

In fact, fourteen fires have been sparked in North Port, which officials believe were started by an arsonist, aggravating conditions that are already just one spark away from disaster. "Right now, we're a little bit dryer than last year. And right now the Myakka River District, which is Manatee, Charlotte, Hardee and DeSoto, we are the driest in the whole state."

And the fires have also been impacting thousands of drivers, as some section of the interstate had been shut down on and off during the past few days.

Despite that, authorities say drivers need to be aware. "If you come across smoke on a highway, we ask that you just slow down; first thing is to slow down and try and make your way through there."

Fire officials also say most people have no idea just how quickly small brush fires can become out of control infernos. “We dealt with a 500 acre fire a couple of weeks ago, and it was absolutely the fastest moving fire that I've ever seen or ever been on."

But the big question now is when will it end? The answer to that lies with Mother Nature. "Until we start getting rain -- and we're talking about two inches of rain -- we're going to be running more and more of the bigger fires because it is so dry."

You can get updates as to local fires online at the Florida Forest Service website.

Experts say if you're driving in areas that are prone to brush fires, keep an eye for smoke, even if it's something small, don't hesitate to call the Florida Forestry Service. They'll be able to see if it's an authorized burn or if there's an actual problem.

This is also the time to get your home ready if you live in an area where brush fires are known to happen. Fire officials recommend cleaning out your gutters, getting dry debris off your roof, and make sure that any dead foliage is cleared away from your house.

This is also a good time to test your sprinkler system. If there’s a fire in the area, you should turn your sprinkler on to start saturating your property as an added layer of protection.