Florida was on fire 25 years ago.
About 500,000 acres burned across the state in the “Florida Firestorm” of 1998. North and central Florida along the Atlantic Coast bore the brunt of the blaze.
All 67 counties reported fires or issued an emergency status, and over 120,000 people evacuated — including all of Flagler County. Then-governor Lawton Chiles declared a state of emergency on June 18.
“Instead of a Fourth of July parade, Flagler residents held a bumper-to-bumper exodus to safety,” read the front page of the St. Petersburg Times on Independence Day that year.
The fires caused about $620 million in damages, and three people were killed, according to the Florida Department of Health.
Wildfires then and now
Weather is the key indicator of how fire behaves, according to Ludie Bond, a wildfire mitigation specialist with the Florida Forest Service.
“And what is the constant thing about weather? It’s always changing,” Bond said.
A strong El Niño in the winter of 1997 and 1998 dropped heavy rainfall across the state, fueling the growth of ground-level forest vegetation, according to the Florida Department of Health. A drought from May to June dried out that excess underbrush, creating massive amounts of fuel for fires. This statewide tinderbox was ignited by lightning and arson, stoking devastating fires through July.
This year’s weather pattern is eerily similar.
Severe drought conditions have overstayed their welcome in the Tampa Bay area and southwest Florida since January. It’s also an El Niño year, which could keep tropical storm formations at bay this season, hurricane experts say.
But weak winds and overall moist conditions are protecting Florida from wildfires, Bond said.
In 1998, parts of Florida reached a drought index of 700, out of a possible 800. The Tampa Bay area and southwest Florida are currently hovering around an index of 300 to 450. The panhandle is experiencing the worst of it: The drought index is as high as 550 in Escambia County. However, most of the state falls much lower.
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The speed at which forest vegetation grows is what makes wildfire concerns in Florida different from the rest of the country, Bond said. For this reason, controlled burn practices are a kind of uphill battle led by state forest managers.
“It’s a needed service that we provide,” Bond said. “Our goal is to keep citizens and visitors safe.”
Forest fires can be a good thing
Florida leads the nation in prescribed burns, a practice where state officials start small, controlled fires that rid forests of understory growth. After burning away this ground vegetation, forests lack fuel that could propel uncontrollable fires into catastrophic ones.
A sweeping change in practices, attitudes and legislation concerning controlled burns came about after the 1998 fires.
“We did not have a robust prescribed fire program in our state at that time,” Bond said. “So, those fires happened. They were very large. They were very devastating.”
Controlled fires on public and private land in Florida make up an average 2.1 million acres burned annually — double the acreage Georgia officials burn in their state, which ranks second.
“We are the model that other states aim for,” Bond said.
Another reason forest fires aren’t as big a threat to Florida as they once were: New technology. Fire towers have been replaced by airplane pilots watching for wildfires from the sky. Lightning strike maps and GPS technology help forestry officials predict where and how fires could spread.
While it’s easier to prevent massive wildfires in the state, one change has made it more complicated to fight wildfires: Florida’s rapid growth.
Twenty years ago, fighting wildfires in Florida was straightforward, Bond said.
“There was nothing out there but the woods,” she said. “Now, it’s roads and people’s homes and businesses. It’s all this stuff. And what comes with that? Debris.”
Though Florida is the lightning capital of North America, most wildfires in the state start from yard debris burns that get out of hand, Bond said.
Longer droughts and urban sprawl
“If a fire starts somewhere, pretty soon it’s going to run into a road or a town or something because we have so much (forest) intermixed with our urban areas,” Bond said.
Prescribed burning is now necessary because of human development in Florida, according to Ping Hsieh, a soil researcher at Florida A&M University.
“Because we have cut off all this forest by the roads and development and made Florida actually fragmentary,” he said. “We have to use our artificial program to keep this thing going.”
Researchers expect the length of droughts will increase alongside warming temperatures and waning precipitation. Human emissions of greenhouse gases are likely to blame, according to a study published in June.
“Because of climate change and development, these problems are going to only get more severe,” said Jack Putz, a University of Florida botany professor.
Putz said the state does a great job of managing forests through controlled burns, but private timber plantations aren’t pulling their weight. Neglecting forests badly in need of a prescribed burn make out-of-control wildfires more likely.
“They’re really not cooperating very well,” he said “Their role in increasing the risk of megafires needs to be considered.”
Putz remembers the 1998 fires well and was worried history would repeat itself in 2007.
He said more open-canopied woodlands and an earlier education on the importance of respecting fire could help Florida be even more protected against wildfires.
“I think we have a ways to go,” Putz said. “But we have a good foundation.”