Florida's growing wildfire problem

As more homes are built in rural areas, the options for controlled burns to eliminate brush are limited.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

In 40 minutes, Betsy Breeding and her husband grabbed what they could, and with ash raining down, they loaded up their truck and Jeep and fled their home of 23 years.

"We knew [the fire] was getting close, so we just kind of moved as quickly as we could," said Ms. Breeding, who relocated to a shelter with her husband as wildfires crept closer to their house.

The couple lives in unincorporated Taylor, west of Jacksonville. It's a rural area, and in recent years, says Breeding, more people have moved in. At the same time, she's noticed fewer controlled burns to clear the area of dry brush that can serve as kindling.

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As wildfires have burned hundreds of thousands of acres across Florida and Georgia this week, the potential ramifications of more residents in rural, wooded areas – along with fewer controlled burns – have become more apparent.

Florida in particular has undergone an explosion in population – a growth of about 13 percent between 2000 and 2006. This has meant that more and more people are pushing into rural areas. In dry weather conditions, such regions can be rife with dry, crackling brush – ideal kindling for a wildfire sparked by a bolt of lightning, discarded cigarette butt, or another trigger.

In years past, foresters worked hard to clear this brush with controlled burns. Now, however, with more homes in these areas, the options for intentional burns are more limited.

"We call that the wild land/urban interface problem – where wild lands meet the homes," says Rose Davis, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center, an organization based in Boise, Idaho, that coordinates government agencies and allocates resources for various regions. "Not only does that impact where we can do prescribed fires and thinning, but it also impacts our fire costs. If we have to protect communities and homes, that is increasingly expensive."

In Florida, more than 200 wildfires have burned tens of thousands of acres this week. Near Naples on Tuesday, a 13,000-acre blaze forced the evacuation of about a dozen residences Tuesday, and one home and two mobile homes were lost. Up near Jacksonville in Bradford County, two fires merged Monday to become a 16,000-acre blaze. Near Orlando, some 6,000 acres burned in Flagler County, and some 1,000 acres burned in Lake County.

One reason for the burst of wildfires: a persistent drought this spring.

However, a subtropical storm, Andrea, was brewing off the coast of the southeastern United States. For now, though, winds from the storm simply pushed smoke throughout Florida. Authorities advised the elderly and those with respiratory problems to remain indoors. Some roadways were closed because of poor visibility.

As early as last week, Gov. Charlie Crist (R) declared a state of emergency.

To mitigate the risks posed by wildfires, residents should clear property of brush, dead trees, and especially unkempt foliage growing close to their homes, says Jim Harrell, spokesman for the Florida Division of Forestry.

"Conditions and the wildfires are much more dangerous each year," says Mr. Harrell, who confirms that some controlled burns are being prevented by housing developments going farther into wooded areas. "You don't have low fires. You have tremendous wildfires."

Such fires are also flaring up in Georgia, where dry pine needles blanket forest floors, says Warren Bielenberg, spokesman for the Georgia Forestry Commission. This week, the largest fire there was in Ware and Charlton counties, where more than 107,000 acres have burned, says Mr. Bielenberg. The fire started April 16 when a tree fell on a power line. Stoked by winds, it has destroyed 24 buildings, including 18 residences.

In addition, lightning was blamed for three fires Saturday in and around the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. By Wednesday, employees were packing up documents there in case of an evacuation.

Together, the Okefenokee fires have burned more than 40,000 acres. One of those fires crossed into Florida, forcing the evacuation of Taylor.

Also, hundreds were evacuated in Charlton County, and some roadways were closed because of poor visibility.

"One of the big problems that we're having: Our fire hasn't grown in acres in the past five days, but we have a lot of reburning with this wind," Bielenberg says. "And so there's been a lot of embers that have been on the ground in the organic soil.... With the wind, it's caused [the fire] to return."

On Thursday, Georgia fire investigators charged two juveniles with arson in connection with smaller fires in the area. Bloodhounds discovered a footprint at one of the fire scenes, Bielenberg says.

Florida and Georgia have endured the most activity this fire season, says Ms. Davis of the National Interagency Fire Center, but in Los Angeles, a brush fire ignited Tuesday in Griffith Park. The fire threatened homes in the Los Feliz neighborhood, and evacuations were ordered for 150 homes, the Los Angeles Zoo, the Gene Autry Museum, and other locations.

Back in Taylor, Fla., Breeding didn't know as of Wednesday evening when she and her husband could return home. She can't imagine losing it, but says, "To a degree, a home is a material possession." She adds, "You can always replace that, but you can't replace your life."

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