TALLAHASSEE — Two Florida forest rangers were killed when a smoldering wildfire — one of hundreds around the state — flared up and trapped them, state officials said Tuesday.
Two fellow rangers were injured trying to rescue them.
The rangers who died Monday had been plowing with bulldozers to contain the roughly 200-acre Blue Ribbon Fire in Hamilton and Columbia counties near the Georgia border. The blaze was among more than 400 listed as burning Tuesday by the state Division of Forestry.
The Suwannee Democrat newspaper reported that one of the men's bulldozers got stuck on a stump. While the men tried to free it, the blaze sprang up and surrounded them.
It's the first time since 2000 that a Division of Forestry employee has died fighting a wildfire, and the first time since 1985 that an employee has died by fire on the ground. The 2000 death came in a helicopter crash near Fort Myers.
The rangers were identified as 31-year-old Josh Burch of Lake City and 52-year-old Brett Fulton of White Springs, authorities said.
Columbia County fire Chief Trey Atkinson, who had fought fires side-by-side with Burch and Fulton, described the incident as every public safety officers' nightmare.
"The conditions are so dry that they change instantly," Atkinson told WXJT-TV in Jacksonville. "In just a matter of minutes, as it happened yesterday, it changed on them, and this unfortunate thing happens."
Support for the rangers and their families poured in Tuesday at a Columbia County community center. Jacksonville Fire-Rescue offered the support of grief counselors to the forestry and county firefighters in Columbia and Hamilton counties who knew the victims, the television station reported.
The rangers who suffered smoke- and heat-related injuries in a rescue attempt, Robert Marvin and Stephen Carpenter, did not require hospitalization.
State forestry director Jim Karels called their rescue effort "very heroic" but said they had to turn back because of tremendous heat and smoke. The Blue Ribbon Fire, which has been burning since Thursday, was later contained.
Both of the deceased rangers were married. Fulton had two grown children, and Burch had sons ages 4 and 5, said Agriculture Department spokesman Sterling Ivey.
Burch had been with the Forestry Division for 10 years, Fulton for 12 years.
"They don't do it for the money," Karels said. "They love the job. They do it to serve the citizens."
The deaths bring to six the total number of Florida Division of Forestry rangers killed in the line of duty since the agency was formed in the 1970s.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said Tuesday that he planned to meet with the families of the rangers who died.
"We can rebuild the structures and restore the land, but the lives of these two heroes can never be replaced," Putnam said in a statement.
Rain forecast for today could help firefighters around the state, though Karels cautioned that lightning could create fires before trees and underbrush become damp enough to resist burning.
He said Florida is running a rainfall deficit this year, and temperatures of up to 104 degrees have made some areas extra dry.
Already, 2011 is the state's 11th-worst year on record for wildfires — with more than 3,800 blazes burning over 250,000 acres.
Florida firefighters have been facing an average of more than 31 new wildfires every day.
In all, more than 115,000 acres were listed as ablaze in the Tuesday summary from the Forestry Division.
In addition to the relatively small 200-acre Blue Ribbon Fire, the Forestry Division listed 13 ongoing "significant fires" on its website Tuesday morning, including a 12,300-acre blaze in Baker County. Four of those fires were less than 50 percent contained.
In all, 29 counties, including Polk and Citrus, were under state burning bans Tuesday.
A Forestry Division map shows the most dangerous drought conditions concentrated across the top of the state, with conditions mitigating somewhat from Citrus County southward.
Still, nearly all of the counties in the greater Tampa Bay region are listed as being at high risk for wildfires.
The risk index in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Polk and Manatee counties was rated high on Tuesday. Pasco and Hernando counties were rated as very high, and Citrus was rated as having a moderate risk.
Also, smoke advisories were issued, warning people with respiratory problems to stay inside, as smoke from wildfires blanketed northeast Florida.
Information from the Associated Press and the Jacksonville Times-Union was used in this report.