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Florida Wildfires

Wildfires Introduction

Wildfires are becoming a more common phenomena in the United States and the last few decades have seen them grow in size, number and severity. These unplanned fires have been described as occurring in such natural areas as forests, grasslands and prairies. They can alternatively be referred to as brush fires, wildland fires, forest fires or grass fires because of where they occur. According to a definition supplied by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) Glossary of Wildland Fire, a wildfire is a wildland fire originating from an unplanned ignition, such as lightning, volcanos, unauthorized and accidental human caused fires, and prescribed fires that are declared wildfires. A wildland fire has been defined as any non-structure fire, other than a prescribed fire that occurs in the wildland. A prescribed fire is rather different. It is a planned fire used to meet management objectives such as preventing actual wildfires.

It is important for wildfires to be managed or prevented altogether in order to avoid substantial damage to lives and property. It is the job of wildfire investigators to understand the causes, to assist agencies, and to better prepare to control such outbreaks. Predicting wildfires can be tedious due to their spontaneity and peculiarity in comparison to other weather disasters.

Wildfires Causes and Geography

Wildfires may be caused by natural factors or by human activity. Most naturally occurring brush fires are caused by lightning, they may also be caused by volcanic eruptions or meteors but these are very rare.

On the other hand, humans are responsible for the vast majority of wildfire occurrences. Human actions may be deliberate, negligent or accidental and are responsible for the overwhelming percentage of wildfires. Data published by the Wildland Fire Management Information (WFMI), pegs humans as responsible for nearly 85 percent of wildland fires occurring in the US. There are several ways humans cause wildfires such as: campfires left unattended, equipment and vehicle use, negligently discarded cigarettes, the burning of debris and intentional acts of arson.

Importantly, wildfires are common to the western parts of the US even though Florida, among other southeastern states, doesn't miss out on its fair share of fires annually. California is the state with the highest amount of wildfire incidents. In 2022 alone, there have been 6,261 incidents of wildfires burning around 325,083 acres in the state.

There are a number of contributing factors to the frequencies of wildfires in the US. Significantly, population growth, in states with many wildlands, heightens the risk of wildfires. The rapid development of the wildland/urban interface increases the odds for forest fires because more people settle in wooded areas. It can be expected that human activity in such areas will increase the potential of a brush fire occurring.

Quite obviously too, climate change contributes in no small measure to the increased frequency of wildfires. The resulting drier and warmer weather reduces the water content in vegetation and this makes the latter more suitable fuel for fires. There is less moisture in vegetation and other plant material during wildfire season. Separately, the variability of rainfall provides more vegetation to act as fuel for out of control fires.

Wildfire season refers to the period(s) of the year during which wildland fires are likely to occur, spread, and affect resource values sufficient to warrant organized fire management activities. Usually, the conditions necessary for a wildfire may arise at any time of the year. Wildfire season influences the likelihood and effects of such fire outbreaks. The period of the year considered as "wildfire season" is changing rapidly. Wildfire season is growing longer due to the conditions, which are catalysts for fires, being worsened. Winter snows are melting earlier than normal and rain is coming later in the fall. Wildland fires in the winter months are becoming the new normal.

Previously, the fire season in southeastern states like Florida was expected to be between March and May. In recent years however, wildfire season may extend to even winter months due to warmer temperatures in the winter. The temperatures, as shown by predictions for the 2021-2022 winter, were speculated to likely be above normal by the Climate Prediction Center. It would appear therefore that year-round wildfires are becoming more common. Around the US today, Forest Service crews plan for wildfire year-round because fire seasons are no longer the norm.

Clearly, wildfires are more common in wooded regions as there is more fuel to support combustion. Another significant feature is the dryness of combustible material, that is, fuel moisture levels. Low moisture in trees and dry forest conditions are favorable to a fire starting and being sustained. Continued dry conditions with higher than normal temperature increases the potential for wildfire activity due to low fuel moisture levels.

How Do Forest Fires Start

There are a myriad of factors that are responsible for a wildfire outbreak. Wildfires, being essentially fires in the wildlands, are created by the same ingredients that make up a typical fire. The most important ingredient for a fire to start is ignition. To ignite a fire, there are three components that must be present: heat, fuel and oxygen. They are known as a fire triangle or a combustion triangle. Due to an abundance of fuel, forest fires often reach or exceed temperatures of 2,000° Fahrenheit, equivalent to one-fifth of the sun's surface.

Similarly, "fire behavior" is the manner in which a fire reacts to the influences of fuel, weather and topography. These three factors determine the severity and reach of the resulting fire. The graphical depiction of these is known as a Fire Behavior Triangle. The components of this triangle are indicative of how much attention should be paid to a wildfire:

  • Fuel - This basically refers to any plant material, living or dead, that is prone to ignition by fire. The right degree of density as well as a high moisture level will make a fuel more suitable for combustion.

  • Weather - Increased temperature and stronger winds are instrumental to the susceptibility of fuel to fire. Reduced humidity is also a contributing factor because drier fuel is more convenient for burning.

  • Topography - This is essentially land shape. Fires move more quickly uphill than downhill. Rocky slopes or drainages can act as good fire breaks.

Wildfires Consequences

The consequences of wildfires may vary in terms of severity and extent. They can be fatal or result in serious injury and health problems. Victims of a forest fire may sustain burns from falling embers and the heat. Property may also be lost or destroyed following a fire incident. It therefore is important for serious attention to be paid to wildfire threats. There are many ways in which a brush fire can cause harm to lives and properties. Wildfire threats include the fire itself, its smoke and ash as well as chemicals from burning material. The smoke from a forest fire can restrict the flow of oxygen into the body and may cause serious breathing problems.

Air quality during a wildfire season can be especially poor due excessive smoke and dust particles that will contaminate the environment. People who are exposed to smoke and ash from out of control fires may experience respiratory problems such as breathing difficulty, coughing and chest tightness and pain. Some other symptoms from wildfire smoke include nausea and dizziness. People with underlying conditions (compromised respiratory systems) face higher danger from wildland fires. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests that in areas affected by wildfires, the level of particulate matter is higher and this directly results in occurrences of acute asthma exacerbations and increased hospital admissions.

More generally, wildfires can cause damage to the environment and result in the loss of timber, wildlife habitat and animals in the region. The destruction of wildlife habitat and timber can lead to deforestation. Trees and plants are often destroyed by fire burning over several acres in the woods. The excessive heat and smoke may obstruct photosynthesis and plant growth.

Forest fires that are not contained quickly enough may increase rapid desertification of affected areas. Wildfires may also cause dramatic changes to the landscape and can increase the risk of flooding and mud flows. It is not uncommon to continue to experience flash floods and other consequences of erosion for years after a wildland fire. These may in turn result in loss of food and cash crops leading to drought, food shortages, and economic losses.

Florida Wildfire Threat Profile

According to reports by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), the Florida Forest Service (FFS) had to fight nearly 150 wildfires that were burning more than 12,100 acres throughout Florida as at March 5th, 2022. These numbers demonstrate the threat level across the state. To make things worse, the temperatures are on the rise throughout the country and especially in warmer regions like Florida. For instance, the 2021-2022 winter was one of the warmest winters on record with maximum temperatures averaging 73.5 degrees fahrenheit and ranking 10th warmest winter on record. The winter was also one of the driest, ranking 16th out of the last 128 years. Moreover, Florida is more urban than the surrounding states and thus there are more properties and furniture which may become fuel for wildfires. The fires in Florida are usually spread by wind as opposed to spreading uphill or in line with the topography as might be the case in other states.

The widely forested state of Florida has been described as being both fire dependent and fire prone. Fire dependency means that certain plants and animals depend on regular disruption by fire for survival. A good example are the sand pine cones located in the Ocala which do not open and release their seeds without high heat.

Notably, lightning is very common in Florida and the Sunshine state is often referred to as the lightning capital of the US. The "Lightning Alley" which is the area spanning Tampa Bay to Titusville, Florida receives the most yearly lightning in the US and 90% of the lightning occurs from May through October, partially coinciding with wildfire season.

The state of Florida is no stranger to grim wildfire incidents. An example of these is the Florida Firestorm of 1998. These unprecedented series of wildland fires spanned the summer period between May and July, 1998 during which up to about 500,000 acres were affected by more than 2,200 separate urban-rural fires. Some of the areas that were severely torched during this incident include Brevard, Osceola, Orange, Seminole, St. John's, Flagler, and Volusia counties.

The economic impact of this disaster has been estimated to be in excess of one billion dollars. To combat these fires, more than 10,000 firefighters were assembled from throughout the country. The fires were speculated to have been caused by lightning and over 150 structures were affected. The fires were concentrated in the northeast region of the state.

Another memorable wildfire is the Bugaboo Fire, which took place in 2007 between April and June. The fire began in the Ofenokee swamp in Georgia and merged with other fires in Florida and Georgia. The forest fires could only be effectively contained by prescribed fires. The fires escalated quickly as it covered about 20 miles in the northern region of Florida along Georgia's southern border within 24 hours. As efforts were made to combat it, the fire continued to burn and soon enough destroyed no less than 4,500 timbers.

Preparing for Wildfires in Florida

Wildfire preparedness is very essential to preventing or otherwise reducing damage or loss from wildfires. One proactive step may be through careful landscaping of areas around the house and reducing fuels (vegetation) that may be conducive to a fire. The immediate area around the house (covering about 30 feet) has been described as the "defensible space" which can be critical to whether or not a building survives a forest fire. It is important to ensure that only small amounts of vegetation which can be fuel for a raging brush fire is kept within this space. Also, it is advisable for homeowners to make sure this area is clean and clear of dead vegetation. Only green and irrigated lawns should be kept in this space to prevent brush fires from causing significant damage to the home. All of these are done to break up the continuity of brush and other vegetation that could bring wildfire in contact with any flammable portion of the structure.

The growing urban population is deemed to be more at risk to wildfires due to their increasing proximity to wooded areas - the urban/wildland interface. Residents must remain alert and take proactive steps to prevent forest fires. Other actions that may be taken to prevent wildfires include the following:

  • Avoid incautious use of equipment or flammable liquids

  • Report unattended fires to emergency services promptly

  • Follow local ordinances and guidelines regarding trash burning and disposing of combustible material

  • Replace highly flammable landscape material with plant materials having a higher water content

  • Avoid unsupervised use of fireworks and use same in clear areas with no woods nearby only.

The first step to be taken after receiving a warning of a wildfire is to stay tuned to radio or television for directions on best emergency precautions to be taken or evacuation options. It is highly recommended to pay attention to emergency news coverage and other public health advisories. The Emergency Alert System (EAS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio are known to provide emergency alerts. These emergency broadcasts are from agencies which track forest fires and can therefore provide updated and useful emergency information, promptly.

It may not always be safe to remain in the home during wildfire incidents depending on the danger level. Emergency warnings will usually specify the expected spread of the fire and ash thus making it easier to determine whether remaining in the home is the best option. When the choice is made to remain at home, ensure that air conditioners and air cleaners are functional in order to prevent exposure to smoke and polluted air. A room should also be designated as a safe room to wait out the disaster if possible. The windows and doors of such a room should be shut off from outside air and be fitted with a portable air cleaner in order to avoid smoke and ash getting in. An outdoor water source may be necessary to put out fires. The water source should also have a hose that can reach any part of the building. In addition, structural repairs may be required on buildings - homes and offices - to prepare them to withstand wildfires. Fire-resistant materials should be used in effecting repairs or renovations in the home. When making structural renovations, ensure to include a fire escape to aid quick evacuation from the building during an emergency.

It is also important to stock up on food, medicine and other supplies in preparation for wildfire incidents. Some important supplies include N95 respirator masks that filter out particles in the air and first aid kits. Important contact information such as that of a healthcare provider should be made easily accessible. Additionally, important documents such as insurance documents should be stored in fire-resistant bags or cabinets and locked securely or removed altogether to prevent them getting lost or destroyed during the disaster. Documents should be reviewed to ensure they are up to date. Copies should be made and kept in easily retrievable formats or they could be made into soft copies and stored in password-protected digital locations. Some other important information such an emergency contact for friends and family or for the fire department should be kept at hand.

Other than the home, offices and other places frequented should also be properly prepared to avoid substantial damage in the event of a wildfire. Vehicles such as cars, trucks and tractors should also be removed completely or have their gas tanks emptied to prevent them from worsening the fire. Boats should also be safely stowed away and insured adequately.

Financial preparedness is very vital when expecting a wildfire. To secure finances, homeowners should endeavor to take out insurance policies which cover damage from wildfires. Existing insurance policies should be vetted to ensure coverage extends to wildfire damage. It is also advisable to get insurance coverage for flooding because flash floods may occasionally happen in regions that have been ravaged by wildfire. Comprehensive insurance coverage is important because of the great economic impact that may result from wildfires. It may be unaffordable to repair homes, boats and vehicles or to even cover the cost of healthcare in the aftermath of a wildfire without adequate insurance policies.

Alternatively, it may be the case that evacuation is the most appropriate step to take. Here, it is imperative to identify safety shelters outside of the range of affected areas. Individuals may need to travel long distances in order to reach safe spaces. It is expedient to get familiar with evacuation routes and shelter locations beforehand. Make sure to draw up an emergency plan for procedures to be followed to keep safe during the wildfire. Provisions should also be made for pets, children and persons with specific needs to be evacuated safely by getting any facilities they may require such as medications. It may be useful to practice how to locate these shelters with pets and children in case contact with them is lost during the wildfire. Maps may be required in order to easily navigate unfamiliar routes. Flammable materials that need to be carried along must be carefully handled and stored to prevent fires or explosions. Such examples include aerosol, cooking oils and hand sanitizers.

Wildfire Warning and Alerts

There are a handful of wildfire alerts that help to keep people safe from forest fires. The National Weather Service (NWS) issues different wildfire alerts and warnings depending on the urgency and hazard level. They include:

  • The Fire Weather Watch: this is for potentially dangerous fire weather conditions which can possibly occur within the next 12 to 72 hours from the time the warning is issued.
  • Fire Weather/Red Flag Warning: this is more serious than a "watch" and usually follows the latter. This may not always be the case and a warning may be issued first depending on the urgency of the situation. A warning is sent out when a fire danger exists and the weather patterns support a wildfire within the next 24 hours.

Additionally, other alerts may be issued by other authorities. An evacuation notice may be issued by local authorities to alert residents that a wildfire is imminent and that they are required to leave the area. This notice may be voluntary or mandatory and it is very important for residents to comply as soon as they are issued.

It cannot be stressed enough how important it is to listen to emergency warnings and watches. Alerts are given to safeguard lives and property. They can only work when guidelines are complied with promptly. Ensure to have followed previous updates and be ready to follow orders as soon as they are issued. Do not linger when evacuation has been ordered.

Assessing Your Wildfire Risks

In preparing for a forest fire, certain utilities are important to ensure fire safety. One of these is a fire map. Maps are generally useful for homeowners, hikers or other affected persons by providing the situational awareness required to avoid getting seriously hurt by a wildfire.

A fire progress map is helpful due to its graphic and real-time depiction of the location of the fire, deployment of suppression forces, and the progress of suppression. This can be helpful for persons who are preparing for a fire disaster, in order to assess the danger level and make adequate plans in response. Asides from maps, the Florida Forest Service (FFS) Active Wildfire Dashboard provides an overview of the total current reported and active wildfires in Florida.

Another important system is the Wildland Fire Danger Index which is used by the FFS to estimate the potential for a fire to start and require suppression action on any given day. It is unique because it strictly determines the odds of a forest fire starting and not the growth of the fire or the difficulty in suppressing the same. The index is updated once every day at 4:45 p.m. Eastern / 3:45 p.m. Central.

There are different ratings ascribed to wildfires based on the danger levels. The National Fire Danger Rating System is employed by the Weather Information Management System (WIMS) to act as a guide to wildfire control and suppression by its indexes that measure the relative potential of initiating fires and to help fire managers to estimate fire dangers over a given area in the short term. The daily fire danger levels are measured with colors, as follows:

  • Green - this is the least level and indicates that the fire danger is low. This means that it is more difficult for fires to be ignited by small embers. Higher heat sources like lightning will be required here to start a fire.

  • Blue - here, the level is moderate and conditions may not support a quick spread of fire except on windy days in dry, open grass fires.

  • Yellow - it is easier for ignition to take place here as the chances are high. Unattended brush fires and camp fires are likely to escape.

  • Orange - the danger level here is very high and fire will start easily from most causes. Fires are also likely to spread rapidly and grow very intense. These fires are difficult to bring under control and will often last for longer periods.

  • Red - this is the extreme level. Fires of all kinds begin very quickly and spread much quicker. The fires can be very intense and can be devastating when not quelled early enough, often lasting several days.

Any of the various systems may be used by people as well because they are in the public domain. These are useful tools for assessing potential risks and aid better preparation for a forest fire.

During a Wildfire

The chances of surviving a wildfire are not favorable when adequate efforts are not made to keep safe. Individuals must endeavor to avoid getting caught in a wildfire at all costs. It is advisable to remain in a secure room prepared in the home or office for that purpose. Persons should remain in their cars during a wildfire and lock the air vents and drive to safety. Do not attempt to outrun a wildfire on foot. It is best to immediately leave an area threatened by wildfire. Drive to safe locations and ensure to carry along children and pets as well as emergency supplies that can come in handy. To stop active fires, immediately call for firefighters. Individuals may attempt to extinguish fires that are still under control with water, fire extinguishers or other equipment for that purpose.

During a wildfire, make sure to stay tuned to emergency broadcasts in order to remain informed about imminent danger and potential areas to avoid. If possible, ensure to consult the Florida Forest Service (FFS) Active Wildfire Dashboard for real-time updates on the status of danger and the progression of the fire.

Importantly, make sure to comply with safety guidelines as directed by the appropriate authorities. This entails following evacuation orders immediately they are issued. When no directions as to evacuation has been given, an individual must still take steps to be safe by moving to shelter locations. This is especially important when smoky conditions are observable as this can signify that a forest fire is imminent.

Furthermore, when an emergency plan has been drawn up in preparation for the forest fire, they should be followed appropriately. Emergency kits should be placed in the vehicle or an easily accessible location when trying to evacuate. An individual may be unable to safely evacuate or avoid being stuck in a brush fire in some situations. Once caught in a forest fire, it is imperative to get to safety quickly to avoid the risk of serious injury from the fire itself, smoldering debris or hot ash. When this is not possible, dial for emergency services and also listen for emergency warnings and alerts. Give accurate locations to be located quickly enough. Trapped people will also need to signal (with a flashlight, banging on pipes, whistling or, as a last resort, shouting) to be rescued.

Make sure to avoid hot ash and live embers which are common to wildland fires. Protective clothing should also be worn. This means fabric that is not easily flammable. Make sure to wear long pants as well as clothes that cover the skin in order to reduce the risk of burns. An N95 mask should be used to limit exposure to smoke. Healthcare providers should be contacted immediately for persons who need medical attention.

After a Wildfire

After a wildfire, it remains imperative to listen to the authorities on what to do and whether it is safe to return home. The authorities will also communicate whether it is safe to drink the water in that area. People returning to areas ravaged by wildfire may need to bring supplies with them or drive out of that zone to get needed supplies. This is because it may be unsafe to consume food or water in that zone for the period immediately after the disaster.

It is best to follow issued directives in order to avoid getting seriously ill from inhaling smoke (smoke sickness), ash and dust particles or ingesting harmful chemicals in the aftermath of a wildfire. A helpful tip to reduce inhaling dust particles is to wet the debris down by sprinkling water all over it. Furthermore, people with asthma and other lung conditions should be cautious when returning home after a forest fire as poor air quality can worsen health conditions.

When property is lost or destroyed during a grass fire, people who have insurance coverages should reach out to the companies. It may be useful to document property damage by taking photographs and making inventories of lost or destroyed property. It is also advisable to contact the insurance company as quickly as possible to notify them. An insurance lawyer may be contacted for legal advice and representation.

There are national and state resources available to cater for persons who have been victims of wildfires. The US Department of Agriculture runs the Disaster Assistance Programs to provide loans to farmers who have been victims of disasters such as wildfires. They also compensate for losses suffered as a result. Also, the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program is administered by FEMA and provides assistance to help communities implement hazard mitigation measures after wildfire disasters.