The Heat Is Online

Fires Consume Thousands of Acres in Florida

Thousands of Florida acres burn
Tue May 30 2000 10:35am EDT

The Weather Channel,

Severe drought has taken its toll on portions of Florida as thousands of acres of parched vegetation go up in smoke.

Wildfires have scorched more than 100,000 Florida acres so far this year, with more blazes erupting every day, according to the Florida Division of Forestry (DOF) and the Forest Protection Bureau.

Fire crews have managed to contain most of the blazes, but are having a difficult time keeping up with the constant barrage of new flames. Some old fires thought to have been extinguished are rekindling, adding to the concerns.

Two years of drought has left the ground so dry in Florida that just about any spark can start a fire with devastating potential. A number of the fires are thought to have been intentionally set. Lightning strikes are blamed for several other blazes, while every-day type events have led to many of the fires.

Over the weekend, a train apparently sparked two brushfires in Hillsborough County. "What we had was the train had a dragging wheel or was creating some sparks that caused a fire along the track at two locations," said Hillsborough County Fire Rescue spokesman Ray Yeakley.

No matter the cause, the factor all of the fires in Florida have in common is their potential for devastation. "Every ignition we have can be a horrible fire," says the DOF's Mark Hebb.

"That's not normally the case. That is what stands this fire season apart from the past."

But some aspects of this season are reminiscent of the past, particularly the 1998 fire season, which was the worst in Florida's history.

That year, some 500,000 acres burned and more than 50,000 residents were forced to evacuate. Timber losses were estimated to be more than $300 million, while fire-fighting costs topped $130 million.

Dry weather during the spring of 1998 led to the 2,282 wildfires that raged from June 1 to July 22. This year, more than 3,200 fires have already broken out.

Last week, Florida officials instituted a total ban on outdoor burning in the state, the first ban of its kind since the 1998 fires. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford says that the drought index, a measure of the amount of water in the ground, is alarmingly high and rising across the state. Ranging from zero (flood-like) to 800 (desert-like), at least three Florida counties have drought indices in excess of 700. Nearly two dozen other counties' indices exceed 600.

"The threat to human life and property is real, and it increases every day we go without significant rainfall," Crawford said when he imposed the ban last week. "One needs only to look at the uncontrolled fire in Los Alamos, N.M., to see how quickly fire can get away from people during drought conditions and the damage it can cause."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.