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Fire threat triggers readiness

The wildfires of 1998 taught state officials a lesson. Now they're making sure they have plenty of equipment and firefighters ready to go.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN and CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Every morning when he gets to the office, Jim Karels checks three things: the drought index, rainfall report and a high-tech map that shows every Florida lightning strike since the day before.

"There were 3,600 strikes yesterday in the state," Karels, the state forestry division's assistant fire protection chief, said Tuesday.

Time to send the government planes on patrol. Time to look for smoke in the woods and swamps, and, maybe, send in firefighters with foam and shovels and bulldozers and water.

"We're hitting them as early as we can, and that's critical," Karels said.

This is the peak of what could be a long and dangerous wildfire season. Some 3,000 fires have burned since Jan. 1, scorching more than 92,000 acres. Karels and other forestry officials are scrambling to avoid a repeat of 1998, when wind-whipped flames blackened a half-million acres and forced 130,000 people to evacuate their homes. In the end, 300 homes and 33 businesses were damaged or destroyed.

This year, it's even drier. But Karels and other forestry officials say Florida firefighters have learned some things since 1998. For one, they say, they have learned to get equipment in place now, early in the season, so they can try to catch fires before they get out of hand.

Florida had lots of equipment brought in by the federal government in 1998, but not until later in the year, when things were at a crisis point.

Working with the U.S. Forest Service, Florida has 16 helicopters and six large tanker planes ready, should a spark become a flame.

"Those are the things that can buy us time until we can get in there with the bulldozers and contain a fire," said James Hart, fire management officer for the U.S. Forest Service in Florida.

Without rain, sometimes a fire that forestry officials declared "dead" six weeks ago can smolder undetected and spring to life.

Florida forestry officials also must cope with the constant threat that other fires in other states will spread resources thinner. During the wildfire in Los Alamos, N.M., Forest Service officials in Washington, D.C., pulled some of Florida's air tankers to fight the New Mexico blaze.

The reason: Fires in New Mexico destroyed more than 200 homes and shut the nation's leading nuclear weapons laboratory, while "ours were just burning swamp," Hart said.

Mark Hebb of the Division of Forestry's Lakeland office said he is especially concerned about the system of swamps that run from Tarpon Springs to Orlando. If lightning strikes were to spark separate fires in those hard-to-reach areas, "it would be overwhelming for all of us," he said. "We would be resigned to just monitoring the fires until it started raining."

This year, the Florida forestry division has a bigger budget -- about $14-million more than it did for the 1997-98 fire season -- and more people.

The state has reached out to other agencies, too, training local firefighters in forest firefighting and tapping the National Guard to help "mop up."

Right now, there are 700 people available to fight fires in Florida, Hart said, and that number could quickly expand to 3,000 or more if needed. The lineup includes crews from Kentucky and Virginia. Last week firefighters from Puerto Rico were working Florida fires.

"We rotate them in for two weeks or so and then let them go back and we get a fresh crew," Hart said. "People after two weeks are going to be more accident prone."

Administrative and support personnel are working 13 days in a row and then taking two days off, Hart said.

The state is working to cut down on the number of fires caused by people. Of the 21 fires that broke out Monday, six were blamed on arson, one was an illegal outdoor fire and two were caused by children.

The state's ban on outdoor burning has cut the number of man-made fires by about 10 per day, forestry officials said.

"People are a lot more aware," Karels said. "Until 1998, they didn't really understand that wildfire was something that could happen to them."

Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford wanted the Legislature to give his department the authority to do controlled burns around neighborhoods to limit the chance of wildfires -- even if property owners objected. But the Legislature didn't approve.

Before conditions got too dry, state forest firefighters did some limited controlled burning, but only when property owners gave permission, said Earl Peterson, forestry division director.

To keep public awareness high, Gov. Jeb Bush recorded a television public service announcement with Crawford that warns people to be careful not to start fires.

Bush declared a state of emergency this month and put the state's Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee on alert, but he has yet to make a ruling on one fire-related controversy: fireworks.

The late Gov. Lawton Chiles banned fireworks sales for Fourth of July 1998 because he said he couldn't risk the danger of sparks getting out of hand.

"It's going to be something the governor is going to decide at the right time. But that time isn't here yet," said Bush spokesman Justin Sayfie.

At the forestry division, Karels is tight-lipped about the fireworks issue.

"We're in discussions with (Bush)," Karels said. "We're giving him the conditions from a fire standpoint. The governor will make a fireworks decision as conditions dictate."

For Karels, politics is a time-waster. It's back to work. The 5 p.m. report is due into the Tallahassee office soon, and no doubt there'll be more new fires on the list.

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