Remembering the '98 Fires
The Florida Fire Service held a press conference this week urging Florida residents to be ready for wildfires as a forecast for an above-normal wildfire season has just been released. Historically, Florida’s year-round wildfire season peaks in April, May and June.
The Florida Forest Service is encouraging the public to “Be Wildfire Ready” by knowing Florida’s outdoor burning laws, preparing their yards and homes and preparing an emergency supply kit.
According to the Florida Fire Service, while Florida is the lightning capital of the United States, the leading cause of wildfires is still people. According to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, over 1,000 wildfires have burned over 35,000 acres in Florida since January. Last year, 2,500 wildfires burned more than 141,000 acres across the state.
As Florida’s population increases, so does the wildland-urban interface, which is the zone where homes and businesses are near forests or wooded areas that are fire-dependent and fire-prone.
I look back at my experiences during the 1998 Florida wildfires that are referred to as the “Florida Firestorm”. It was a harrowing time to be working and living in Florida as several thousand separate woodland and mixed urban-rural wildfires which wrought severe damage during the summer months of that year. Wildfires sparked mainly by lightning would converge into single, vast blazes, would cross natural firebreaks such as rivers and interstate highways, and called for one of the largest responses I have ever seen. Regular activities such as Fourth of July celebrations, sporting events, tourism, and daily life were profoundly interrupted for millions of residents and visitors in the northeastern part of the state.
What made the 1998 fires so bizarre was that Florida had historically been considered as an area of lower susceptibility for wildfires, due to its high humidity and rainfall levels. I remember being on the fire line early into the event and wondering why so much green foliage was burning. I was new to Florida at the time and my Midwest was showing.
Of course, I had always thought of Florida as this lush, green wetland and little did I know that Florida’s vegetation such as saw palmetto, wax myrtle, yaupon holly, red cedar, and gallberry are all highly flammable! The paraffin-rich foliage literally would explode in these fires; an experience I had never been through before.
An El Nino during the winter had produced above-average rainfall, which enabled extensive growth of underbrush and vegetation in the state's forests. In early April, however, the rains came to an abrupt halt, and the ensuing drought lasted until July. These months of continuing dry conditions saw the drought index rise to 700 (out of 800), indicating wildfire potential similar to that usually found in western states like Colorado.
The response to the fires was almost unreal and certainly larger than I had ever seen. Response came from local, state, and federal resources and as many as 10,000 firefighters from across the United States. The Army, Marines and National Guard brought in personnel and equipment, and five hotshot firefighting teams participated.
If you could see them through the smoke, one could see aircraft deployed to the fires such as Sikorsky Skycranes and a Canadair SuperScooper”.
Nearly 500,000 acres were burned over during the firestorm and fires or emergency status was reported in all 67 counties with north and central Florida having the largest concentration. Over 10,000 firefighters responded and 40 U.S. States sent supplies and reinforcements. It was, to date, the largest aerial fire suppression operation in the United States.
Over 120,000 Florida residents evacuated, which included entire counties at a time. Evacuees were directed to other counties, shelters, or hotels, unable to return to their homes for days, not knowing if they would return to anything at all.