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Agriculture Press Release

March 25, 1999

Crawford Creates Strike Force to Combat Wildfire Arson

TALLAHASSEE Florida Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford today announced the creation of a strike force to combat arson, which is contributing to the states growing wildfire threat.

The panel, composed of both Division of Forestry and agriculture law enforcement officials, will work with local fire and law enforcement agencies in investigating and arresting suspects, and to provide a deterrent to future arson activity.

"The message here is that arson is intolerable," Crawford said. "We intend to devote as many resources as is necessary to put those responsible for setting these fires behind bars."

Crawford said he has spoken with Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who has pledged his departments resources to the effort, including that of the Statewide Prosecutors Office.

In addition to combating arson, Crawford said the strike force will also work with communities to establish public education programs to teach citizens how to handle fire responsibly and steps that can be taken by residents to protect their homes and property.

As part of the public education effort, Crawford has taped a public service announcement that details steps citizens can take to minimize the risk of wildfires. It is scheduled to begin running on television on Monday.

Since early this year, Florida has experienced about 1,650 wildfires that have impacted 35,000 acres. Crawford estimates that one in three -- at least 500 in all -- have been caused by arson.

A shortage of rainfall this winter has led to early wildfire problems this year, and officials are concerned because Florida only now is entering what is normally its driest months -- April, May and early June.

Between May and July of last year, the state experienced an unprecedented wildfire season. Nearly 2,500 wildfires impacting some 500,000 acres scorched Florida, causing $400 million in timber losses, destroying or damaging 300 homes or businesses, and forcing the evacuation of 130,000 residents.

In 1998, 33 people were arrested for either intentionally or inadvertently setting forest fires, and 20 others were issued citations for illegal or unauthorized burnings. So far this year, two arrests have been made and six citations have been issued, but criminal investigations are ongoing in connection with more than 100 fires.

Crawford urged citizens who witness any arson or other suspicious activity to call his Departments arson hotline 1-800-342-5869. The hotline is operational seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Rewards of up to $1,000 are available to citizens whose information leads to the arrest and conviction of arsonists.

"We will be doing all that we can in the coming weeks and months to protect lives and property by bringing arsonists to justice and instructing the public how to minimize the impact of wildfires," Crawford said. "But the public can help by letting us know if they witness any activity that is contributing to the problem."

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For more information:

Terence McElroy
(850) 488-3022


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