July 2, 1998
Since June 1, wildfires in Florida have burned nearly 300,000 acres of land and have forced more than 35,000 people to flee their homes. With no rain in the forecast, high winds and exceptional heat are expected to fan the fires' flames. Betty Ann Bowser reports.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: This is what firefighters have been trying to stop for nearly two months. Thousands of wildfires, started by lightning, nursed by extremely high winds, burning virtually everything in their way. Yesterday and today more than 70 new fires spawned by record dry drought conditions sprung up all over North Florida. One hundred and forty miles of Interstate 95 are closed down to traffic from Jacksonville to Cocoa Beach. More than 35,000 people were evacuated from their homes, some in the dead of night.
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May 22, 1998
Lee Hochberg reports on fires in Mexico.
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The Florida Department of Agriculture's fire information page.
USDA National Forest Service
More than 35,000 have evacuated their homes.
MARK THORNTON: We's just scared, wakin' up, you know, 2 o'clock in the morning, go outside, and you can't even see a foot in front of you. That's how smoky it was.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Mark and Teresa Thornton and their two daughters were rousted when a fire at the northern Florida town of Mims, started moving toward their home. They had less than five minutes to get out.
THERESA THORNTON: I went ahead and grabbed the Beanie Babies last night.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Those are toys for the children.
THERESA THORNTON: Yes. These are the kids' toys. Some more pictures I had grabbed this morning, and clothes, all my important papers, dog food, water for the dog.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: For now, the Thorntons are safe, but they don't know when they can return to their home.
THERESA THORNTON: It's very scary, especially the way the wind was doing today, it's circling, so who knows where it will go next. And it's burning underground, so you might not visibly see it, but it could still be there. We have that fact, that worry, so we're scared to go back.
Wildfires have destroyed nearly 300,000 acres of land.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Since Memorial Day Weekend, hundreds of firefighters from all over the country have been doing battle with thousands of wildfires, they have destroyed nearly 300,000 acres of public and private forest land from Tallahassee all the way to the resorts along the Atlantic Ocean. Every single county in the state has been affected in the worst fire disaster here in 50 years. More than 150 homes have been destroyed, but so far no lives have been lost. Firefighters have been working in record-breaking heat above 95 degrees for weeks. Toby Richards is a U.S. Forest Service firefighter from New Mexico. He's been on the line for 20 days.
TOBY RICHARDS: If you're not taking lots of breaks and drinking lots of water, you're not going to last very long. The first day we got here we thought we could just pound line out all day and we lasted about two hours, and we had people dropping like flies. We're fighting fires in places that are usually knee deep in water, and there's no water out there, so all the fuel that these fires are consuming is just so dry that it's burning a lot hotter than it normally would.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: This is normally the rainy season in Florida, but this summer Forest Service officials say the soil is almost as dry as a desert. The dryness index for a desert is 800. The earth here is 780 and climbing. Add to that unusually high winds and the heat and the result is the wildfires that have been springing up every day. This is the firefighting command center in Tallahassee, the state capitol, where local state, federal, and military officials use a computer system to track the movement of fire. They also project weather conditions on big screens and closely monitor wind conditions. Craig Fugate runs the Fire Response Center for the state of Florida.
CRAIG FUGATE, Emergency Response Coordinator: We don't know when this is going to end. Obviously it will end at some point. That will be when we get enough rain to reduce the fire threat. Until we get those rains and it's statewide and we get good saturation in the soils, the fire threat remains.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Normally, this time of year there wouldn't be so much as a breeze blowing over this pasture. The grass needed to help spring calves put on weight would be cowboy-boot high. But the drought and extreme heat mean there isn't enough grass for grazing. The cows are two to three hundred pounds underweight, so when they go to market, they may not bring good prices. State-wide Florida's Department of Agriculture says livestock producers have lost $172 million. Along with raising cattle, farmer Richard Barber of Levy County in North Central Florida, grows peanuts. Even though he has irrigation, that crop is now in trouble too, because there's been no significant rainfall in four months.
RICHARD BARBER, Farmer: Oh, man, we were in trouble from March 19th. Like I told you, I watered all these crops, every one of them, I started planting my peanuts in April, April 7th, and we had to water with these irrigations to get those seed to germinate, to come out of the ground. So we've been working almost around the clock.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Only one third of the farmers in Florida have irrigation systems like Barber's, so many will have crops that are a complete loss. Statewide, agriculture officials say farmers have suffered $135 million in crop damage. And Levy County Extension Agent Anthony Drew says some farmers may not survive.
ANTHONY DREW: The heat, the wind, the drought conditions that we've had here in this area, having two and a half inches in a period of time that we normally have thirteen and a half inches, April, May, and June, have all come together to make this one of the toughest seasons that anybody can remember around here in producing a crop. Basically, I'm afraid that we're going to lose some producers this year.
The driest and hottest summer on record.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Not only are Floridians living through the driest summer on record. It's also the hottest ever. That combined with smoke produced by the fires has created air pollution. The smoke is so thick even miles from fire zones that drivers have to turn on their headlights to see where they're going. The haze frequently obscures the sun. As much as 15 or 20 miles from the fires the air smells bad, makes the eyes burn, and when inhaled can cause health problems. Dr. Roberto DiNicolo is an allergist in Daytona Beach who's seen a sharp increase in the number of patients with breathing problems.
DR. ROBERTO DiNICOLO, Allergist: They complain of more asthma problems, shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, phlegm production, burning sensation in the lung and in the nose. And it seems as time goes on and the level of exposure continues and it compounds there are more and more sick people now, because it has given the lung time to develop a lot of inflammation and irritation so that now these flare-ups are more frequent and they're more long lasting.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Officials have ordered a ban on fireworks for the 4th of July weekend. But they are worried what the weekend may bring.
CRAIG FUGATE: Weekends we get more starts from human activity. Most of them are accidental. We do see a little bit of an increase in arson fires on the weekend, so we are anticipating as we come over a long period of time, we are going to have a lot more people doing outdoor activities, it just increases the chances of accidental fire starts.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: There is a note of irony to all of this. It is hurricane season in Florida, a time of year most residents approach with fear. But this summer many people will tell you they would welcome a tropical storm.