Florida Fires and Heat Wither Cattle, Tourism, and Crops

Scorching weather creates tinderbox, drying crops and even affecting coral reefs.

In most parts of Florida by late June you can set your watch by the thick thunderheads that roll across the state each afternoon, unleashing a daily torrent of cooling rain.

But not this year.

Instead of rain clouds, Florida's skies are filled with clouds of smoke and ash from scores of brush fires raging across the state.

Officials blame El Nino for the severe summer heat and prolonged drought that have rendered Florida a tinderbox. The state is literally parched from the now dry swamps of the Apalachicola National Forest in the Panhandle to the banks of the St. John's River near Jacksonville, to the fringes of the Everglades in south Florida.

The heat is so intense that scientists are even reporting that coral reefs off Florida are bleaching themselves white.

Some experts say it is part of the same disruptive worldwide weather pattern that has sparked major fires in Europe, Asia, Mexico, Central America, and elsewhere. In the US, it has left more than just the Southeast baking in hot, dry weather. Texas is in the midst of a major drought that threatens agricultural losses of more than a half billion dollars and overall economic losses of $1.7 billion. And a major fire has flared in New Mexico.

The weather has been so hot and so dry that in Florida officials say it will require nothing less than a tropical storm to douse the flames and put the fires out. It is a highly ironic suggestion coming roughly three weeks into the dreaded hurricane season.

"As strange as it might sound, everyone in the state of Florida is at the point where a tropical storm would be appreciated," says Major Greg Moore of the Florida National Guard, which is assisting firefighting efforts with helicopters, heavy equipment, and tankers.

"We need a thorough statewide drenching," says Molly Payne, a spokeswoman for Florida's division of forestry. She estimates that two to four inches of rainfall are necessary at a minimum.

Last weekend, a band of storms dumped three inches of rain near Jacksonville, helping to douse some fires. But that and other widely scattered thunderstorms also produced lightning that sparked more than 100 other blazes. Most of the rain quickly evaporated, and firefighters were forced to scramble in response to the new fires.

So far at least 85,000 acres have burned, including the destruction of 72 private homes, 41 other structures, and 70 cars and trucks. State officials have yet to assess the cost to Florida agriculture, but it looks to be severe. One estimate places the fire damage at $100 million. But that number could increase, as major crops such as corn, hay, peanuts, soybeans, and watermelons - which generate roughly $242 million in sales a year - are wilting in fields across the state.

The beef industry is also taking a hit. Because of both a lack of feed and the intense heat, cattle ranchers aren't waiting for their stock to reach the preferred 1,800 pounds, instead rushing them to market when they weigh 1,000 pounds.

The first of the fires was sparked May 25 in the Apalachicola National Forest, and firefighters have yet to bring that blaze under control. In the meantime, other fires were sparked across the state, with estimates that firefighters are now facing up to 80 new fires a day, most of them caused by lightning.

Late last week, residents on the rural fringe of Jacksonville faced a close call as wildfires roared toward their homes. The same scene played out near the central Florida towns of Waldo and Perry. In each case firefighters were able to bring the flames under control.

This week fires are threatening counties near Daytona Beach. Firefighters have responded to reports of wildfires in 65 of the state's 67 counties during the past two weeks.

Last week, President Clinton declared Florida a federal disaster area, which makes the state eligible for federal emergency assistance.

Normally this time of year, Florida is a rainy and humid place. But the combination of heat and lack of rain has left the state unusually dry. State officials cite a moisture-index system to illustrate the point. They say a desert, with no moisture, scores an 800 on the index. Currently Florida's score reflects near bone-dry conditions in the Sunshine State, ranging from 710 to 776 on the moisture index.

If there is any good news this forest fire season, it is that other areas of the nation that are usually prone to major forest fires in June are enjoying a relatively wet summer.

"You might say that Florida is experiencing California's wildfire season," says Sue Exline of the US Forest Service in Washington. "We are far below where we would be on the number of fires and acres burned on a 10-year average," says Ms. Exline. She says so far this year there have been 28,047 forest fires, compared with 40,684 fires on average during each of the past 10 years.

"Right now the most critical area of concern is Florida because it is the busiest," says Mike Apicello of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. "We are also keeping an eye out in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona."

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