Updated: Crist praises firefighting efforts in Central Florida

May 13, 2008

Strong winds, low humidity stoking wildfires in South, Central Florida

By Jim Ash
Tallahassee Democrat--May 13, 2008

Gov. Charlie Crist this morning thanked the scores of crews fighting thousands of acres of wildfires in Central Florida and urged Floridians to be careful in tinder-dry conditions.

“I want to thank the first responders,” he said, noting that despite the huge effort, there have been no deaths and only three minor injuries. “I think the response has certainly been good. I truly appreciate these great public servants.”

Crist said a state of emergency he declared yesterday has already paid off, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency pledging grants that would help repay as much as 75 percent of property damage.

Crist is scheduled later today to travel to the worst of the fires in Brevard County, where more than 3,000 acres were burning.

The Osage fire in Brevard has consumed more than 3,000 acres and destroyed five homes and another 200 are threatened, said Gerry LaCavera, a spokesman for the Florida Division of Forestry.

An 800-acre fire in Palm Bay in the southern part of the country is threatening 500 homes, LaCavera said. Firefighters so far have only been able to achieve, “minimal containment,” there, he said.

A wildfire in Volusia that has scorched 797 acres and forced the evacuation of the LPGA International subdivision is 55 percent contained, LaCavera said.

Gusting winds and unusually low humidity have improved only slightly, and there is no rain expected in the state until the weekend, LaCavera said.

“There are red-flag warnings all over the state,” he said. “Unfortunately, the conditions aren’t very good right now for fire suppression.”

Crist is set to survey firefighting efforts this afternoon in Brevard County. He’s got another event there as well.

Crist declined to discuss the subject of a 2:30 p.m. press conference in Melbourne, where he is expected to announce a $41 million economic development project with Embraer, the Brazilian aircraft manufacturer, that promises to bring 200 high-paying jobs to the Space Coast.

But he noted morning news reports that described the deal.

“I’m not going to say anymore,” he said.
Crist declares state of emergency for Florida wildfires

Gov. Charlie Crist on Monday declared a state of emergency for the next 60 days while crews battle wildfires in Brevard, Volusia and Glades County.

“This is just another tool in our kit,” said Mike Stone, a spokesman for the Division of Emergency Management. “It helps free up resources and gives us the ability to take care of the unknown. We’ve had dry weather today and strong breezes, and that makes the firefighting a little harder.”

The fires in Brevard County have already burned more than 2,100 acres, closed Interstate 95 for a time and Monday afternoon led to the evacuation of two schools threatened by flames.

The state Emergency Operations Center went to a partial activation and Division Director Craig Fugate now has additional power to call in firefighters and equipment from other states under a mutual-aid compact, if it becomes necessary, Stone said.

Three teams of eight to 10 firefighters each and a dozen-member task force earlier on Monday were already headed to Brevard County from a state Division of Forestry’s Panhandle region.

Division spokeswoman Ronda Sutphen said the blaze initially began May 6 and was considered contained at one point but was reignited by strong winds and low humidity. By Monday evening the fire claimed one home and numerous vehicles and outbuildings, she said.

About 90 state and local personnel are fighting the blaze with the help of at least one state helicopter and another provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Sutphen said.

Crist plans to visit Brevard County on Tuesday to see the firefighting efforts in person, said spokesman Thomas Philpot.

A cold front has kept humidity as low as 20 percent and winds gusting up to 30 mph, exacerbating wildfires. Those unfavorable conditions are expected to remain at least through Tuesday, Stone said. The state isn’t expected to see any rain until at least Sunday.

Firefighters were concentrating much of their efforts on what early Monday was already a 2,100-acre Osage blaze in Brevard County, said Daniel Stanley, a quality assurance specialist with the state Division of Forestry in Tallahassee.

North and south-bound lanes of I-95 were closed in Brevard County overnight Sunday because of hazardous driving conditions, Stanley said.

“We are not expecting any rainfall in the whole peninsula for at least five days,” Stanley said.