Environment

Scott issues state of emergency as Florida wildfire season worsens

Last week, firefighters battled a blaze in Hernando County. On Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in response to wildfires across the state.
Last week, firefighters battled a blaze in Hernando County. On Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in response to wildfires across the state. AP

With thousands of acres across Florida ablaze and drought conditions intensifying, Gov. Rick Scott issued a state of emergency Tuesday.

An unusually dry winter, that stands as the second warmest on record and is linked to a La Niña weather pattern, has spread drought conditions across much of the state. Wildfires have already consumed 250 percent more land in the first three months of this year than the same time last year, Scott said in making the announcement.

“This may only get worse as we enter the hotter summer months and it is crucial that we take every action right now to be prepared,” Scott said in a statement. His declaration will make it easier to coordinate local and state agencies, he said.

Earlier this year, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam warned that such conditions could set the stage for a repeat of the 1998 season, when blazes spread across a half million acres and led to mass evacuations in Flagler County and other parts of the state.

Fire experts worry that in addition to the worsening drought, the state is loaded with fuel. An El Niño that preceded the dry winter spurred heavy growth of underbrush, adding to vegetation from past years. Normally the state burns about two million acres in advance of wildfire season, but only 200,000 acres underwent controlled burns last year.

The state’s Division of Forestry reported that wildfires had burned across more than 79,000 acres in 1,494 different fires as of Tuesday. However, those figures do not appear to include the state’s largest fires so far this year in the Big Cypress National Preserve, where more than 36,000 acres have so far burned.

In mid-March, the Parliament fire — which was named that after park officials found a pack of Parliament cigarettes near the blaze — scorched more than 26,000 acres. Firefighters continued to battle another blaze, the Cowbell fire, about a mile north of I-75 on the preserve Tuesday. The fire, which grew by 2,000 acres overnight, has so far spread across nearly 10,500 acres. Last week, about 6,600 acres burned near the Everglades in Broward County.

With months to go before the rainy season arrives, officials are concerned about drought conditions that on Tuesday extended from Orlando south to Key West. Temperatures are also expected to remain higher than normal over the next three months.

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich

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