State barely keeps up with wildfires

Published May 5, 2007

JACKSONVILLE - Gov. Charlie Crist declares a state of emergency, Florida National Guard air crews are mobilized and weary firefighters are returning from Georgia as the state works to contain wildfires in several rain-starved areas.

On Friday, the state was fighting 123 working wildfires, burning 12, 000 acres of brush and trees in parched areas of the state. There were no mandatory or voluntary evacuations as most of the fires were burning in areas where they were not a threat to homes or businesses.

Crist's emergency order Thursday opens the door to federal funds to help fight fires and allows him to use the Florida National Guard.

His proclamation states that the ongoing wildfire season threatens the state with a major disaster.

Since Jan. 1, there have been 1, 860 fires, charring about 160, 000 acres, said Jim Karels, assistant director of the Division of Forestry.

One of the largest wildfires in the state Friday was a blaze located on the Flagler-Volusia county line, west of Interstate 95 and north of State Road 40.

That fire grew to 3, 700 acres Friday, expanding to the northwest toward the Relay Management Area in southern Flagler County. It jumped fire lines Thursday night on the northwest and west ends of the blaze.

"It has an extremely heavy fuel load in a very tough area, " Karels said.

The state has dispatched a team to work with 70 firefighters who are trying to contain the massive blaze. In July 1998, the entire county was evacuated as wildfires scorched 56, 000 acres, destroyed 46 homes and caused heavy damage to about 179 others.

Karels said the fire is about 60 to 65 percent contained.

"That means we've just barely got a hold on it, " he said, adding there is a potential for flames to jump fire breaks.

Today, the Florida National Guard will join the fight, Karels said.

The Guard is standing by in Brooksville with a Fire Hawk helicopter, which is a Black Hawk with a water tank, and another Black Hawk with a sling bucket to carry water. Additional helicopters are available if needed.

A crew of about 20 Division of Forestry firefighters helping with the massive wildfires in southern Georgia were ordered to return to the state Wednesday to help quell the outbreaks in Florida.

Rain was predicted for northern Florida today and Sunday, but Karels fears it will bring with it lightning and winds, which could aggravate the work of firefighters.

Meanwhile, a lightning-sparked wildfire continued to burn Friday on the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge near Boynton Beach. The blaze had burned about 1, 300 acres over three days. Afternoon rain on Thursday and high humidity brought the blaze to 95 percent containment, officials said.

The fire was not threatening any homes, and no evacuations had been ordered. Refuge spokeswoman Serena Rinker said officials had ordered a helicopter to drop water on the fire on Thursday, but it was redirected to other fires in the state.

Officials were hoping the blaze would burn to a nearby canal and a backfire could then contain it completely.

In Lake County, an 875-acre fire was burning Friday within containment lines. Karels said it was 70 percent contained.