In every corner of our state, severe drought conditions have made Florida a tinderbox. Roughly 100 wildfires are currently burning about 75,000 acres, and our Florida Forest Service wildland firefighters are working side-by-side with partnering agencies to battle these fires and protect life, property and wildlife.
On Friday, Collier County had to evacuate approximately 7,000 homes due to a massive wildfire. We’ve not seen fire conditions this bad since 2011, and we have wildfires burning from the state line to Miami.
Current conditions conjure memories of one of the worst years on record—1998, when at one time I-4, I-75, and I-10 were all closed at the same time, Disney World was closed, the Pepsi 400 was postponed, and an entire county, Flagler County, was evacuated. In 2017 so far, more than 130,000 acres have burned due to wildfires. Many homes have been saved, but some have been lost.
My grandfather used to say, “extremes beget extremes.” Some of the wettest El Nino cycles that we have are followed by the driest conditions that are ripe for wildfire. These tough drought conditions are worsened by the abundance of undergrowth—brush and weeds—that grows and thrives due to the heavy rainfall the prior year. With dry conditions, all of it turns into kindling that fuels large and swiftly moving wildfires, whether caused by people or nature.
Recently, I asked Governor Rick Scott to issue an executive order to enable us to use all available resources to combat these wildfires. National Guard UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters are assisting our other aircrafts fighting these wildfires. One of the most concerning aspects of these conditions is the last time an emergency order was issued in 2011, it was mid-June. June is typically the peak of wildfire season, so it’s a very serious situation that it’s even earlier in the year that we’re seeing such extreme conditions.
Unfortunately, the two most common causes of wildfire are people. The leading cause of wildfire is human carelessness, such as allowing a debris pile to grow out of control or a spark from an intentional fire to land on dry land and start a wildfire. The second leading cause is arson. We’ve seen a 70 percent increase in arson cases this year compared to last year with 240 cases so far.
Education and awareness are important components of preventing wildfires. Residents should obey county burn bans, which can be found on FreshFromFlorida.com. They can also track current fire conditions on the website and learn how to create defensible spaces around their homes. Most importantly, if evacuation orders are given, residents and visitors should heed those warnings and keep themselves and their loved ones safe.
Combatting wildfires is truly a partnership. When we recently had a fire on St. George Island, our Florida Forest Service firefighters were out there cutting fire lines, bringing down the intensity of the flames, while the local structural firefighters were up against the houses, making sure they were the last line of defense to protect those homes. As a result, no homes were lost in that fire.
We recently had a firefighter overtaken by flames in his dozer in Okeechobee, and Okeechobee County Fire and Rescue were already on the scene and assisted in getting him out safely. Thanks to their swift rescue efforts, our firefighter is safe and in good health. The comradery of the firefighting service is an extraordinary one, and we should all be proud of them.
The Florida Forest Service will continue to work around the clock to protect residents and visitors, property and wildlife from fire. And I encourage every Floridian to do their part to help prevent wildfires and report any suspected cases of arson by calling local authorities. May God bless our firefighters.
Adam Putnam is Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture.