Drought, Raging Fires Begin to Consume Florida Resources

Jun 17, 2011

The following article was published in Sunshine News on June 17, 2011:

Drought, raging fires begin to consume Florida Resources

By Gary Rohrer

As remnants of smoke encircled the Capitol in Tallahassee on Thursday, Florida Cabinet members were briefed on the status of more than 420 fires throughout the state, and the dangerous drought conditions that help create and sustain them.

Jim Karels, director of the Florida Division of Forestry, said that as of Thursday morning, the fires were burning more than 300,000 acres in state and federal lands throughout the state. A small fire in nearby Jefferson County was responsible for the smoke wafting toward the Capitol.

“Ninety-three percent of the state is in a drought of some form right now,” Karels said.

The fires are aided by the severe drought conditions, and although Florida’s afternoon rainstorms are providing some relief, they also bring frequent lightning strikes, creating new fires.

“By and large, we’re dealing with natural causes (as opposed to arson),” said Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Karels said the three most dangerous fires are the Espanola fire in Flagler County, the Maytown Road fire in Volusia County and the Santa Fe 11 fire on the border of Bradford and Alachua counties. The Espanola fire is particularly troublesome, because it has the greatest potential to affect homes and families.

“The fires in Flagler do present some concern, because there is a greater urban interface near the fires,” Putnam said.

As of Wednesday, the Espanola fire was burning 4,306 acres and was 40 percent contained, according to data from the Division of Forestry. The Maytown Road and Santa Fe 11 fires are burning 1,200 and 5,500 acres. The Maytown Road fire is not contained at all, and the Santa Fe 11 fire is 25 percent contained.

There are more than 2,000 state and local workers trying to put out the blazes, and Karel said there is great coordination with officials from Georgia, who are grappling with fires in the southern part of their own state. Precisely because other states are dealing with their own dangerous fires, however, Florida may not be able to count on additional resources.

Gov. Rick Scott signed an executive order Monday allowing local and regional authorities to take the necessary steps to protect their residents and property, and he visited Flagler County firefighters and emergency managers.

“I can report to Floridians that we have world-class experts working to fight these fires and prevent new fires from starting,” Scott said Thursday.

Putnam said the drought conditions harkened back to 1998, when wildfires ravaged much of the state, shutting down I-95 from Jacksonville to Titusville and large portions of I-10 for much of that summer.

“These are 1998-level drought numbers. We’re basically today, in terms of drought conditions, at the same point where we were this time in 1998,” Putnam said.

The Division of Forestry at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services enacted a temporary statewide restriction Thursday prohibiting open campfires on all state lands because of the extreme drought conditions and increasing wildfire threats.

The temporary open-campfire restriction prohibits all fires placed on the ground until further notice or until the threat of wildfire is significantly diminished.  Cooking fires contained in commercially designated apparatuses such as grills and embedded metal fire rings are still OK, at least for the time being, a division spokesman said.

All week, Florida farmers have been watching the skies for evidence of the beginning of the rainy season, usually well under way in June. But, nothing. They report that field crops — cotton, peanuts and corn in particular — are suffering from the drought conditions, as are Indian River citrus and pastureland throughout the state. According to AgFax.com, Southern Florida vegetable producers are being impacted by the water limitations due to the low water levels in Lake Okeechobee.

The fire-inducing conditions raised the specter of a statewide ban on fireworks during the Fourth of July, as was done in 1998. There are currently 26 counties in Florida with a burn ban, which prohibits the use of fireworks and other pyrotechnic devices, but officials are hoping to prevent a full statewide ban on Independence Day.

“It’s a great American tradition and we want to protect it if we can,” Putnam said.