Investigators: Intentional or accidental fire starters will pay

Florida Forest Service sends bills for starting fires

ORLANDO, Fla. – When a brush fire flares up, firefighters will stop at nothing to contain the fire and save homes and property, including calling in strike teams from around the state, helicopters, tractors, bulldozers, fire engines, or anything else they need.

Then they send the person or people who started it a bill.

"We will have sworn law enforcement officers investigating anything suspicious," said Sean Gallagher, Florida Fire Service Orlando District manager. "If my agency has to put it out we're going to send you a bill. A minimum of $150, up to thousands of dollars. Plus arson charges if someone does this intentionally and that's the reason we have sworn law enforcement officers investigating."

Gallagher said Florida Department of Agriculture investigators are investigating brush fires across Central Florida, including the one last weekend in the Live Oak Reserve subdivision of Chuluota.

On Monday, a week after a wall of flames roared through the woods and nearly torched 100 homes, Forest Service firefighters were still hosing down smoldering spots.

"I'd say at this point we're closing out on $10,000," said Gallagher, estimating the total cost of fighting the fire since last week.

Gallagher said investigators are still working on the cause of the fire but said the point of origin was less than a quarter-mile into the woods.

"If you look over there you'll see white ash, which means it burned very hot," Gallagher said, pointing to a charred clearing where palmetto bushes were completely blackened. "It's quite possibly the origin of the fire."

Gallagher explained how investigators pinpoint the cause of a fire using "fire flags."

"The direction the fire is burning, the vegetation will freeze in that direction," Gallagher said. "So as it burns, the vegetation will point the direction the fire was going to. So you can pinpoint the origin of the fire by following fire flags. You can walk in the opposite direction of the fire flags and get to a point where they're all facing opposite directions and that's the origin of the fire."

A Denny's on SR 436 in south Orlando caught fire Sunday when someone dropped a cigarette onto mulch. The mulch up against the front wall of the restaurant ignited and set the wall on fire.

"If a cigarette caught mulch on fire it's pretty dry out," Gallagher said. "I'd just like to emphasize if we catch you you're going to be liable for the cost of suppression, $150 up to the actual cost."

Gallagher said that if someone sees a person flicking a cigarette out of a car window onto dry grass, please call your police department or sheriff's office non-emergency line with a license plate tag and report it in case the grass catches fire.

If someone sees a person intentionally starting a fire, Gallagher asked that they call the Arson Alert Hotline at 1-800-342-5869.

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