Florida declares emergency after wildfires engulf state
By Ana Ceballos and Tamara Lush
TAMPA, Fla. — Florida’s governor declared a state of emergency Tuesday in response to the 107 wildfires burning around his state.
Gov. Rick Scott said the proclamation will make it easier for state, regional and local agencies to “quickly work together to protect our families, visitors and communities.”
Wildfires are burning on a total of more than 23,800 acres (9,600 hectares) of land and have destroyed 19 homes. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said this is the most active wildfire season since 2011.
A Florida Fire Service map shows most of the fires have sprung up between Lake Okeechobee to the south and the Ocala National Forest to the north. Scott’s executive order is expected to speed government assistance in hard-hit Polk, Collier, Marion, Nassau, Broward, Hernando and Glades counties.
Since February, wildfires have swept across 68,000 acres (25,500 hectares) of the state. That amount is higher than the average acreage burned over the past five years.
The largest blaze right now is the one known as the Cowbell Fire in South Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve, which has spread to more than 8,000 acres (3,200 hectares) just north of Interstate 75.
In Pasco County, north of Tampa, voluntary evacuations were issued Monday and an emergency shelter was opened. The evacuation order was rescinded and the shelter closed later Monday evening but officials there are warning residents to be ready in case evacuations are again recommended.
One fire near Oviedo in central Florida over the weekend resulted in evacuations of nearly 40 homes and harrowing moments for firefighters. And a Hernando County brush fire apparently sparked by lightning on Saturday had widened to 1,100 acres (445 hectares) by Monday.
The dry conditions mark a sharp contrast to 2016, when the state was drenched by two hurricanes. Many areas are experiencing drought and authorities said that’s a big factor in why so many wildfires have ignited.
April and May are traditionally Florida’s driest months.
Putnam said about 90 percent of the fires this year have been sparked by humans. “As we get a little deeper into the year and the rains do come, the first few weeks of rain bring in as much lightning as water and that’s when the lightning-caused fires really kick up,” he said.
State health officials warn that wildfire smoke affects people with chronic lung and heart problems and asthma. Doctors have advised people with these conditions should limit their outdoor activities if wildfires are burning nearby.