FLORIDA – Over 650 wildfires have burned in the Sunshine State since Jan. 1, 2021, according to the latest statistics from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ website.
Last year, the Florida Forest Service reported a total of 1,969 wildfires, which means one third of the total number of last year’s fires have already happened in the first quarter of the year.
The Florida Forest Service is dedicating six days -- April 5-11 -- to educate and encourage people to be wildfire ready. The initiative is part of the agency’s annual Wildfire Awareness Week campaign aimed at saving lives and preserving forests and the wildlife that live in them.
The most recent brush fire to happen in Central Florida was Easter Sunday when an illegal pile burn was found at an Apopka home. The fire charred 40 acres in just a few hours.
Authorization for burning yard waste is not required but, according to the FDACS, residents must still follow the law and meet requirements for the area they live in.
Statistics show that while Florida is the lightning capital of the United States, the leading cause of fires that happen are started by humans.
In a recent news release, Florida Ag Commissioner Nikki Fried said, “Wildfire Awareness Week is an important reminder of the devastating effects wildfires can have on people and natural resources. It’s more important than ever to be aware of the risks, exercise caution, and follow the law. These steps will ensure the safety of your family, your community, and our wildland firefighters.”
While the leading cause of fires are human-based, lightning is the next big factor for the state. The Firestorm of 1998 is one event many Floridians, including myself, won’t soon forget. After months of rain that winter, caused by El Nino conditions, suddenly it just stopped.
Typically, April is one of the driest months in the Sunshine State, ending the dry season that begins in November. Nearly half the state is covered in forests. That, along with all the undergrowth from ample rain prior to that April, started to turn dry and brittle. The extremely dry conditions of 1998 turned Florida into a tinder box. Isolated thunderstorms popped up, packing lightning, which ignited the dry vegetation. The limited rain produced in the storms was not enough to put out the flames.
Soon, the entire drought-stricken state was ravaged by wildfires, impacting not only the forests but residents too. From May to July, almost a half-million acres were destroyed. The U.S. Fire Administration reports shows over 150 structures and 86 vehicles were damaged by the fires. Thankfully, no lives were lost in the 2,200 individual fires that burned for months on end.
The most heavily impacted area was right here in Central Florida, where many in Volusia, Lake, and Flagler counties had to evacuate their homes as fires inched closer. Several major roadways were shut down. I lived in Volusia county at the time and recall it raining ash for months. Witnessing International Speedway Boulevard shut down from Daytona Beach to DeLand and seeing the glow of the massive flames ravaging the pine-filled forests is one of the scariest memories that still lives with me 22 years later.
Damage to the timber alone was estimated over $300 million in a FEMA report.
Finally, the wet season arrived, bringing the rain firefighters had prayed for to smother the flames. All that was left behind were black sticks that were once trees poking out of the charred ground for miles and miles. The stench of smoke lingered in the air for months.
Right now, all of Central Florida falls under the abnormally dry category of the drought monitor. While this means the area isn’t in an actual drought, it does mean there’s a lot of extra crunchy vegetation.
The rainfall deficit ranges anywhere between 4 and up to 5.5 inches below the average rainfall normally seen to date. During the firestorm of 1998, Daytona Beach was in a deficit of 12 inches from May through July, according to the National Weather Service reports.
To keep residents safe when the threat of fires is high, education and being prepared is as important as preparing for hurricane season.
For more tips and information, the Florida Forest Service invites you to check out its website, which is chock full of helpful tidbits aimed to keep all of Florida safe.