‘We are ready, because it’s going to happen’: Officials warn of busy months ahead as wildfire season gets off to busy start

With firefighters battling 134 wildfires burning more than 87,000 acres across Florida, state and local officials are continuing to sound the alarm, warning residents that a predicted busy wildfire season is already here and is only expected to get worse.


“We are ready because it’s going to happen,” Julie Allen, with the Florida Forest Service, told The Record on Thursday.

Allen serves as the wildfire mitigation specialist and public information officer for the Forest Service’s Bunnell District — the district that includes St. Johns as well as Flagler and Volusia counties.

She said St. Johns County had only five fires burning a little more than 70 acres total as of Thursday morning. They were all listed as 100 percent contained.

The largest fire in the district at the time was what is being referred to as the Veterans Parkway Fire in Volusia County that was also listed as completely contained but having burned 350 acres.

The local numbers stand in stark contrast to those in Thursday morning’s daily report from the Forest Service, that showed state lands had 28 fires larger than 100 acres that were burning 18,329 acres total. There were also 103 smaller fires burning 21,902 acres as well as three federal fires over 100 acres in size burning 47,433 acres.

The busy season had already pulled Allen away last week when she travelled to Pasco County to help a colleague with public information officer duties.

“They’ve got major wildfires,” she said. “They’ve got large acreage fires that are right on the back sides of homes and it really required two PIOs to handle all the fires they had over there.”

But firefighters here, she said, are staying put in anticipation of what’s to come. Mitigation crews, which work prescribed burns and land clearing efforts, have also stood down in order to respond more quickly to the small fires that have been cropping up. Allen attributed the relatively small size of most of the local fires to those quick response times and partnerships the Forest Service maintains with city and county firefighters throughout the district.

Although small, Allen said, what the firefighters have seen thus far suggests things could get worse.

“We’re dry,” she said. “And the ones that we do have, they’re hot and the guys are seeing a lot of volatile fire behavior and it’s very concerning.”

Particulalry with the hsitorically busiest fire months — May and June — still ahead.

“That’s when we had our largest wildfires,” Allen said, ticking off some of the worst years in recent history, “‘85, ‘98, and 2011 when we had the big Espanola fire and the Seminole Woods fire.”

The fire season six years ago and the busy months to come were also on the minds of state officials Wednesday when Jim Karels, director of the Florida Forest Service, and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who oversees the Forest Service, hosted a news conference in Tallahassee.

“This is the most active fire season that the state of Florida has witnessed since 2011,” Putnam told those in attendance, with Karels underscoring the rapid start to the season.

“We tend to peak in the months of April, May and June. And many times, the worst is in May and June. So this is early,” Karels said

Karels told reporters that the state has already seen 27 homes destroyed and about 2,000 evacuated as fires threatened residential areas across Florida.

He and Putnam warned that most fires are caused by human activity and urged vigilance and care as the busy months approach.

They asked Floridians to be careful in activities like discarding cigarettes, burning debris and driving on roads where smoke limits visibility.

Allen took much the same tone Thursday, urging residents to maintain 30-foot margins of “defensible space” around their homes that are free of yard debris. She also said that homeowners should clean roofs and gutters to be sure they are clean of “dry leaf litter.”

“It only takes one ember to come on to your roof and catch that leaf litter that is on there on fire and you could potentially lose your home,” she said.

While 17 counties in the state have issued burn bans, none in the Bunnell District have. But Allen said the Forest Service has stopped authorizing prescribed burns or pile burns associated with land clearing efforts and would recommend against outdoor fires in general right now.

“We are just asking ‘Please don’t,’” she said.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.