TALLAHASSEE - With the state battling 106 wildfires covering more than 124,000 acres, Florida's top forestry official warned the fire season has yet to reach its peak.
Jim Karels, director of the Florida Forest Service, said Florida is experiencing an "active early fire season," with drought conditions throughout the state.
"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 as he joined Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam at a news conference to ask Floridians to step up efforts to prevent fire outbreaks through vigilance and precautions.
The current fires include 78,000 acres under the state's jurisdiction and 46,000 acres under federal control, including large fires in Baker County near the Okefenokee Swamp and in the Big Cypress region in Collier County. Thirty-one of the fires cover more than 100 acres.
"This is the most active fire season that the state of Florida has witnessed since 2011," Putnam said.
He contrasted the fires with last year's record rainfall, noting historically more severe fire seasons often follow very wet years.
"Extreme begets extreme as my grandfather used to say," Putnam said.
He said Florida has recorded approximately 1,600 fires this year, compared to fewer than 900 fires last year.
Putnam said the state is prepared to step up its efforts under Gov. Rick Scott's declaration of a state of emergency issued earlier this month. Under the order, Putnam said the Forest Service was able to utilize a Florida National Guard Blackhawk helicopter, which had a 600-gallon water bucket, to help fight fires over the last weekend.
"Our resources are stretched, and the additional aircraft from the Florida National Guard made a big difference," Putnam said.
He also said the Forest Service is making arrangements for support from other state agencies, including the Department of Environmental Protection, as well as the U.S. Forest Service, which is providing aircraft support.
And Florida has activated a regional firefighting compact with other Southeastern states that could bring in additional firefighters and equipment if needed.
Putnam said human activity is the leading cause of the fires, with trash burning that gets out of control and arson as the top two factors. He said some 240 fires have been linked to arson, a 70 percent increase over last year.
“We're asking for the public's help,” Putnam said, urging Floridians to call 911 or the department's arson hotline (1-800-342-5869) if they see suspicious activity.
He and Karels also asked Floridians to be careful in activities like discarding cigarettes, burning debris and driving on roads where smoke limits visibility.
"Be safe. If that visibility goes down, slow down," Karels said.
Putnam said some counties have imposed burn bans, while a statewide ban would be "a last resort."
"That is always preferential to a (statewide) blanket ban," Putnam said. "We hope that the counties will take the action they can take to protect their citizens."
In addition to the acreage burned, the 2017 fires have destroyed 27 homes, although the overwhelming majority of the 2,000 homes that have been evacuated were saved, Karels said.
Underscoring the ongoing danger, Putnam said the Forest Service lost a firefighting bulldozer over the weekend in Okeechobee County. He said the firefighter driving the vehicle was rescued unharmed due in part to the "sealed cabins" used on the vehicles.
"For the foreseeable future we've got dry conditions," Putnam said. "For the foreseeable future we desperately need people to be very, very cautious."