Worst wildfire season in years prompts a state of emergency in Florida

BY    | Updated: Apr 12, 2017 at 3:23 PM

Florida has entered a state of emergency as firefighters battle more than 100 wildfires that are raging throughout more than 20,000 acres in the state — from the northern border, to the Panhandle, to the southern tip.

Gov. Rick Scott issued the state of emergency order Tuesday, allowing regional and local agencies to redirect their personnel to fight the wildfires and enlisting the help of the Florida National Guard. The order also puts Florida in a position to receive assistance from the federal government.

State officials say less than a month into the spring season, large swaths of South and Central Florida are approaching drought-like conditions.

“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 Tuesday in a statement.

The state has not seen such active wildfires since 2011, according to the governor’s office.

More than 1,494 wildfires have burned 79,629 acres in Florida so far this year, according to the Florida Forest Service. That is five times the number of acres burned in the same period last year.

The largest active area — the Parliament fire — has damaged the Big Cypress National Preserve in the southern part of the state, burning 41 square miles. This fire started March 18 and is 95 percent contained. The Cowbell fire, also in the Big Cypress National Preserve, has burned nearly 16,000 acres, according to the National Parks Service. That fire, which started March 30, is still growing and is only 11 percent contained.

Florida State Forester Jim Karels told the Tallahassee Democrat that about 90 percent of the fires this have been caused by humans and there is “no end in sight” as they continue to battle the fires. The unusually dry conditions are raising fears there could be a repeat of the historic 1998 wildfires that swept through the state, destroying at least 342 homes and causing an estimated $393 million in damage.

State fire officials said that since then, they have improved their management of controlled burns in a way that reduces the risk of wildfires.

Karels told the NewsHour that fires in urban areas, not the remote Parliament or Cowbell fires, pose the greatest concern because they have the potential to damage critical infrastructure like roads and homes. “The real struggles are in the urban interface areas like in Hernando County, Franklin County, Naples and Martin County. Fires that are threatening evacuation of homes,” he said.

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