Longtime Floridians are accustomed to the threats posed by water and wind. So often are we hammered by hurricanes and floods that I know people who refuse to take a storm seriously if it’s not at least a Category 3. They regard anything below that as an excuse to throw a hurricane party, nothing more.
But 25 years ago, we were hit by a calamity of a different kind:
In 1998, we endured six weeks of wildfires that were so bad, an entire county had to evacuate its 40,000 residents. All lanes of Interstate 95 and Interstate 4 closed down. Foot-long ash fell from the sky. Billboards melted in their frames. Some 10,000 firefighters from across the nation joined forces to combat blazes that ravaged a total of 860,000 acres. Despite their efforts, more than 300 homes were destroyed.
How bad was it? In a speech beamed by satellite to television stations across the state, then-Gov. Lawton Chiles asked Floridians to appeal to a higher power for help.
“‘I hope you will join me in praying for rain,” he said. “We have to hold on until the rain comes.” (Can you imagine anything like that happening today? Gov. Ron “God Made Me More Special Than Other Men” DeSantis would be too busy with his international “book tour” to come back home and help his constituents.)
Because newspaper editors love anniversary stories the way I love barbecue ribs, several Florida newspapers — Florida Today, TCPalm.com, and the Daytona Beach News Journal — ran “25th anniversary of the wildfires” stories last week.
I didn’t need these journalistic reminders. I was one of several dozen reporters who covered the conflagration when it happened, and my memories of this event remain vivid. It’s one of the worst disasters I’ve ever seen — even worse than the current legislative session, believe it or not.
Every interview was done in a rush because we didn’t know which way the flames might jump next. Sometimes it was hard to hear responses to questions because helicopters thundered overhead, and headed out to dump an entire pond on the burning forests. By the time I got home, the smell of smoke permeated all my clothes like an especially acrid cologne: Brut-ally Burnt-Up.
One Flagler County resident told me he’d built his sturdy block home to withstand another Hurricane Andrew — but he wasn’t ready for this.
“We built for wind and storm, but nobody could build for fire,” he said. “Fire will walk right through anything.”
The Florida Today story on the anniversary emphasizes how much firefighters learned about fighting wildfires thanks to this heartbreaking event. You know who didn’t learn anything?
Fire is as essential to the natural Florida landscape as it is to the name of the funk group Earth Wind and Fill in the Blank.
“The vast majority of ecosystems in Florida are fire-dependent,” said Hilary Swain, director of the Archbold Biological Station in Venus. Our landscape evolved to embrace fire because “lightning strikes are part of our long-term history going back millennia.”
People who don’t know this about Florida often look at all fire as if it were a destructive force, Swain said. They don’t understand that regular fires that sweep through the pinelands, prairies, sand hills, and grasslands “are like winding up an old watch,” she said.
The fires renew the energy of the place, restarting the growing season, spreading some species — saw palmetto, for instance — and thinning out what’s become overgrown. The new growth even does a better job of sucking climate-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, she said.
One mark of a longtime Floridian, Swain said, is that you drive by a stand of trees with blackened trunks and a vigorous burst of underbrush sprouting around them, a place that burned just a couple of months before, and you say, “That was a good fire.”
Burning up old growth and forest debris also lessens the risk of wildfire, she pointed out. It’s only when safe fires have been suppressed that we risk the wild, uncontrolled kind.
Some primitive part of the human brain recoils from any fire that humans don’t control. It’s OK when you’ve got a nice blaze warming you up in a fireplace or cooking some ’smores by a campfire. When those orange tongues are bouncing willy-nilly from pine to palmetto, we freak out like the Monster in the movie “Young Frankenstein” seeing a flame flickering from his thumb.
That’s why, for decades, you never heard a forester or a park ranger say anything nice about a fire. In the 1920s, the American Forestry Association dispatched its “Dixie Crusaders” across the South to warn everyone about the evils of fire. That became the gospel for decades.
“Fire was taboo back then,” recalled Jim Stevenson, a longtime Florida park naturalist. “We thought the worst thing you could do was have a fire in a state park. We’d risk life and limb to put one out.”
When the South’s population of bobwhite quail declined, the owners of bird-hunting plantations near Tallahassee and Thomasville, Ga., hired a federal biologist named Herbert L. Stoddard to figure out why.
Stoddard’s studies found that the plantations needed regular fires to create the kind of habitat that quail favored. Suppressing the fires had messed that up.
Stoddard and a scientist named Ed Komarek established Tall Timbers Research Station near Tallahassee to study the ecology of the Panhandle’s piney woods. Komarek persuaded Stevenson that conducting a regular “prescribed burn” would have ecological benefits for the state parks.
In 1971, Stevenson convinced his park service bosses to let him try one at Falling Waters State Park near Chipley. They chose that park because it was near Tallahassee and had the right mix of fire-sensitive species, Stevenson told me.
Leading the burn 52 years ago was Komarek’s wife Betty, a Florida State graduate with a degree in botany who had co-founded the Birdsong Nature Center in Georgia. It was rare in those days for a woman to supervise a bunch of male park rangers, but her experience at Birdsong made her well-qualified.
“She was the fire boss,” Stevenson recalled. “The burn went well, and we were off to the races.” (Somehow we never see a salute to Betty Komarek during Women’s History Month, but clearly we should.)
These days, park officials know that approximately 300,000 acres of the park system needs regular burning. Prescribed burns are a routine management practice throughout the state’s parks and forests — except when it upsets nearby residents.
The firefighters who dealt with the 1998 disaster learned a lot, said Jim Karels, a onetime forester and firefighter who served as head of the Florida Forest Service from 2008 to 2020. One thing they learned was that there was a great need for regular prescribed fires.
“We do better with prescribed fire, the equipment is better and the management of it is better,” Karels told me. “We were more isolated then, but now we have agreements and compacts in place to help each other.”
However, he noted that one major problem is that “we still build in the wildland-urban interface.”
In other words, developers are still scattering crop after crop of suburban homes that shouldn’t burn amid the multiple stands of need-to-burn forests.
That’s a problem because “people coming down here from up North — say, New York — don’t know about wildfires or prescribed fires,” said Karels, who’s now fire director for the National Association of State Foresters.
Please join me in humming “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” by the Platters for this next part of the column.
I asked Jane West of the smart-growth group 1000 Friends of Florida if she’s seen this problem with builders plopping down houses too close to where the landscape needs to burn. Her “yes” shot out as fast as a 10-year-old racing to flag down a passing ice cream truck on a hot day.
Local and state government agencies often approve of building subdivisions too close to parks, forests, and wildlife management areas, she said. Then the residents become hot under the collar the second they smell that first whiff of smoke from a prescribed burn.
“The residents get outraged … and the next thing you know, they end up shutting down the prescribed burns,” West said. By not allowing the regular burning to proceed, she told me, “that’s setting it up to become a wildfire.”
When I asked West for an example of what she was talking about, she brought up a project from the Jacksonville area from a few years back.
On land that had been used for growing timber, the Edwards Creek Preserve (yes, that’s right, “preserve”!) sought a rezoning from rural to planned unit development. That way, its owners could build 790 single family residences.
Instead of blocking the development or forcing it to be built as far from the two natural areas as possible, she said, the city council imposed an odd requirement: The developer had to disclose to the first buyer of each home site that there would be prescribed burns going on at certain times of the year. That was it.
Only the first buyer of the property got the notice, West told me, and “there was no requirement to disclose anything to subsequent buyers.”
Plus, she said, the notice was “just a single piece of paper” provided to the buyer amid the cascade of documents presented at closing. The warning was likely to get lost amid the sea of other paperwork involved, she said.
Then West referred me to a fire expert named David Gordon from Quest Ecology in Wimauma.
“In my experience, developers do very little [to deal with wildfires] so it’s put upon the agency landowners to install expensive fire breaks,” Gordon told me. “When development goes in, you can no longer burn when the wind is coming from a particular direction because then it will put smoke on those residents.”
As homes, stores, hospitals, and other human features are built next to forests, that can close the “burn window” for when and where a prescribed burn can take place, Gordon told me.
“It makes it more and more difficult,” he said, “and things don’t burn as often as they need to.”
“Well,” you may be thinking, “this is an interesting discussion, but what does this thing that happened 25 years ago have to do with things that are happening now? I mean, didn’t you just write a column about heavy rains and flooding in Broward and Palm Beach counties?”
This is the point at which I refer you back to the Florida Today anniversary story.
“This year, similar heat, drought, and other factors that set Florida ablaze 25 years ago are aligning,” the story notes. “They are driven by the same climate cycle, although to lesser degrees. Meanwhile, other risks have grown. Today, 7.6 million more people live in Florida than in 1998, many at the fringes of where overgrown forests and newer subdivisions meet.”
In other words: Say hello to 1998, Part Two!
As of two weeks ago, two-thirds of the state was suffering from moderate to extreme drought conditions, making those areas ripe for a wildfire to erupt.
All the trees knocked down by Hurricanes Ian and Nicole can make for good wildfire fuel, too, especially in the places where prescribed burning has been limited by houses built too close to the woods.
Fortunately, we’ve had a little precipitation recently that lessened the fire threat somewhat. But it seems silly to me that we rely on the storms that bring us all those lightning strikes to also drench the debris-strewn landscape so it won’t burn.
Why not push the builders to be more mindful of the fire risk they’re leaving for the residents, just as they should be mindful of building in areas that flooded during hurricanes? We never either one, though. Our elected officials, many of whom were elected with the builders’ support, repeatedly grant the developers everything they want in order to maximize their profits and then walk away.
So, until we get into the full-fledged thunderstorm season next month, I’d recommend you heed the advice of the late Gov. Chiles: Say a prayer that the good Lord sends us some wildfire-quenching rain.
Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.
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