Agriculture Press Release
June 22, 1998
Drought, Heat Taking Toll
TALLAHASSEE Lingering heat and drought are wreaking havoc in Florida, sparking countless wildfires in the north and central parts of the state and devastating crops in North Florida and the Panhandle, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford said today.
Damages attributed to the searing heat already have reached an estimated $100 million and the figure will quickly go higher unless rain and lower temperatures come soon.
"Conditions are extreme, and its taking its toll on our forests and crops," Crawford said.
What follows is an overview of the two problems:
Some 76,000 acres in 39 counties in North and Central Florida have been damaged from wildfires, which began over the Memorial Day weekend three weeks ago.
More than 100 homes and structures have been damaged or destroyed, hundreds of people have been evacuated and an estimated $10 million in commercial timber has been lost.
Just as troubling, Crawford said, is the fact that many of the more than 650 fires that have occurred have been attributed to arson.
"We will aggressively pursue every lead in an effort to bring those responsible for putting lives and property in danger to justice," Crawford said. In an effort to crack down on the problem, Crawford has established a task force of law enforcement officers within his department, which is conducting investigations and following leads in counties where fires have occurred. To date, one person a 12-year-old Putnam County boy has been arrested for deliberately setting a fire.
Crawford has commended counties that have suspended Fourth of July firework celebrations and is encouraging counties that have not yet done so to consider doing the same.
In the meantime, Crawford cautioned citizens to avoid using fireworks of any kind around their homes, yards or in the woods.
"With the tinderbox conditions we are experiencing, a simple sparkler could ignite grass or a tree and lead to disaster," he said.
The firefighting effort should be enhanced this week with the arrival of additional aircraft, bulldozers and other equipment that will enable Crawfords Forestry Division to increase both its air and ground capability in the ongoing battle.
With only about two inches of rain recorded in North Florida since April and record-breaking temperatures for more than a month, at least $80 million in crops in the North Florida- Panhandle region have been lost. Hardest hit have been corn, peanuts and hay.
The three crops, along with cotton, soybeans, watermelons and tobacco, generate about $242 million in sales for the 12,000 farmers in the region each year, and estimates are that at least a third of it is lost. As each day passes without rain, more crop loss will occur.
The problem has been compounded by the fact that many, if not most, growers in the area lack irrigation systems and have to rely on rainfall to water their crops. Normally, the northern part of the state receives about 10 inches of rain in May and June compared to the 2 inches it has received during those months this spring.
Crawford said he is grateful that President Clinton has declared the state a disaster area, because it will give growers in the region an opportunity to seek much-needed federal assistance.
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