TOPICS > Environment

Florida is burning and it’s just the start of the dry season

April 12, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
In Florida, a state of emergency is underway as more than 100 wildfires burn in and across all corners of the state. And since February, more than 7,000 acres have burned across the state, as Florida copes with rising temperatures and major drought. William Brangham sits down with Jim Karels, director of the Florida Forest Service, about how the state is combatting the heat.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: More than 100 wildfires are burning in and around Florida, and the state is expecting a difficult fire season ahead.

Yesterday, the governor declared a state of emergency there.

William Brangham has the latest.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Over 70,000 acres have burned across the state since February. And the fires are not just in one spot. They’re located in all corners of the state. This is also occurring while Florida is dealing with a major drought.

Jim Karels is the director of the Florida Forest Service and a 32-year veteran of fighting fires. He joins us from Tallahassee.

Welcome to the NewsHour.

Jim, I wonder if you could just give us a sense of how things are in Florida right now.

JIM KARELS, Director, Florida Forest Service: Dry.

The peninsula of Florida is — especially South and Central Florida, extremely dry right now. And it’s drying out as you go north all the way to the Georgia-Florida line.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: We mentioned you’re also dealing with a drought at the same time. How much is that a contributing factor to all of this?

JIM KARELS: A big contributing factor, in that, you know, we had some late freezes, didn’t have much of a winter here in Florida, but we did have a freeze late into February, early March. And it went down to South-Central Florida, and then it really didn’t rain after that.

So you have got that dry vegetation. You have got — low rainfalls were really since about January, kind of a La Nina effect that we tend to get every few years in Florida. And now we’re into our normally dry season, April, May, parts of Florida, early June, where we’re normally dry anyway.

And that increases the whole situation, where it makes it very easy for fires to start, makes it very easy for fires to spread.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: This is still the beginning of your fire season. Do you have any sense of what the longer-term forecast is? What does it look like coming down the road?

JIM KARELS: Well, we have got a couple forecasts out of — one, our National Fire Center in Boise. And that pretty much paints a red target on Florida probably through April, May, and June.

The NOAA forecasts show the drought expanding into some parts of the state into the same period, into April, May, June. That’s normally our dry period. Along with how dry we already are, it really paints a picture that we have got a pretty intense fire season in front of us. We are very busy already. We’re busy early. And we’re drier than normal early, as it is in early April right now.

And we really expect to probably have to fight fire all the way to June, maybe even July. And it tends to move up the state. Our worst right now is South Florida. It moves to Central Florida, and then it moves to North Florida as it kind of closes out our fire seasons.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And over 100 fires. Can you give us a sense of what is causing so many different simultaneous fires?

JIM KARELS: Well, right now, the majority of our fires are human-caused, probably 90 percent of them. Various different things. Some of it is yard trash burning, where people are cleaning, spring cleaning, and they’re burning their leaves.

Some of it is vehicles, catalytic convertors, that type, or equipment working in the woods or the wildlands. Some of it is arson, incendiary. Have some issues with that. And then this past weekend, we got some lightning, so we’re starting to see the lightning fires evolve as well.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Most Americans think of fires out West in the very dry brush and forestland we see out there, but I understand that the type of vegetation that is burning and the way it burns in Florida is quite different.

JIM KARELS: It is.

Fire evolved under fire, so it was constant fire prior to humans. And the vegetation tends to be more waxy, more resinous. What we say is, in Florida, green burns. That’s different from the West. The West, the fuels tend to be very cured, very dry, very — essentially dead, where, down here, you come in here and you look at our vegetation, you think that’s not going to burn, and it’s just the opposite.

And then it burns under a lot higher humidity. Our fires can burn very intensely all the way up to 40, 50 percent humidity. In the West, it tends to be 20 percent or below.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: With all these different fires across the state, what is the danger to the human population?

JIM KARELS: As you know, Florida’s got a big population, about 20 million people.

So, just about every fire we have impacts what we call the urban interface, or homes, structures. And so far this year, we have evacuated over 1,800 homes. And we lost 27. So, we saved a lot, impacted a good number of people in their daily lives from the wildfires.

And the other thing in Florida that it really experiences is the impact on the roadways. We get smoke on the highways. With all those people and with a lot of tourists moving through the state, the roads become dangerous when the visibility gets down low.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Jim Karels of the Florida Forest Service, thank you very much. And good luck down there.

JIM KARELS: Thank you.

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