© St. Petersburg Times, published February 21, 2001
Nothing announces the threat of drought conditions more dramatically than the smell of smoke in the air. Even the urban centers of Tampa and St. Petersburg were shrouded in smoky haze from a distant fire early this week. The threat isn't isolated to Tampa Bay, however. Throughout the Florida peninsula, where 80 percent of counties are suffering drought conditions, no one can ignore the danger.
The latest fire was started by a careless resident in rural Polk County, who burned trash in his backyard despite a ban on such activities. By mid-week it had spread to more than 11,000 acres, shut down Interstate 4 and sent residents in several counties scurrying inside for a breath of fresh air.
While 2001 is not yet two months old, Florida has already had 1,271 wildfires that have burned 85,400 acres. The record drought and recent freezes have created piles of tinder, fuel for an errant spark. And ground water needed to fight wildfires is scarce. Meanwhile, state officials warn that Florida's normal dry season lasts for three more months.
In short, Floridians are facing a statewide crisis in which each of us must do our part to prevent the next fire. First, we should be vigilant. As Gov. Jeb Bush pointed out, "Most of these fires are man-made, either by arson or human error." Local governments should strictly enforce the ban on open fires; smokers should be especially careful with discarded cigarettes; and everyone should report any activity in which arson is suspected. Tampa Bay residents, who are familiar with water shortages, should show the way in conserving our precious resource. It will probably be needed in the coming weeks.
Gov. Bush appears to be taking the lead, as he should, in a statewide firefighting effort. He has sought Federal Emergency Management Agency grants that will cover some of the cost of battling blazes in Polk County and other areas of the state. Fire prevention and a quick response to the latest hot spot will have to be coordinated in advance to be effective.
In one way, we have been lucky. No one has been killed or seriously injured by the wildfires, and damage to houses and buildings has been limited, so far. Most of the credit goes to our firefighters, who have been tireless in their task. Their job will be easier if each of us does what we can to stop the next fire before it starts.
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