Agriculture Press Release
August 5, 1998
TALLAHASSEE -- Florida Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford has unveiled an ambitious plan to minimize the impact of future wildfires, calling for strategic control burning to protect urban areas, more aggressive voluntary burning in rural locations, and a request for greater manpower and equipment to carry out the plan.
"While Florida traditionally has had the most aggressive control burning program in the country, this summers wildfire experience has demonstrated that we must do more," Crawford said. "Well never be able to eliminate wildfires, but we can minimize their impact."
Between Memorial Day and the end of July, record heat and drought triggered an unprecedented 2,300 wildfires in Florida, causing nearly $400 million in timber losses, destroying or damaging more than 300 homes, and forcing the evacuation of 50,000 residents. More than 5,000 firefighters from 45 states assisted in the effort. Department officials estimate the cost of putting out the fires exceeded $150 million.
The centerpiece of Crawfords plan is making greater use of controlled or prescribed burning, a practice in which public or private landowners intentionally set fire under select conditions to burn the underbrush, which typically provides the primary fuel for wildfires. Approximately 2 million acres are burned in this manner every year in Florida, substantially more than in any other state.
The specifics of Crawfords plan include:
Crawfords Forestry Division will develop and implement a program to reduce fuels in and around communities and subdivisions to mitigate the risk of wildfires. Four, five-person strike teams will be strategically located throughout the state to focus on prescribed burning in urban areas. When wildfires do break out, the strike teams will be available to assist in suppression efforts. A request for staffing and equipment will be made through the Departments Legislative Budget Request. Crawford will also ask the Legislature to approve funding to acquire four additional helicopters for aerial suppression efforts, bringing the total to seven.
Crawford is requesting private, non-industrial landowners and forest industry landowners to cooperate in the need for a more aggressive prescribed burning program. Under the proposal, prescribed burning would be mandatory in the buffer zones around communities, subdivisions and wildland/urban interface areas. Forestry officials will assist or contract with land managers to complete prescribed burning programs. When a landowner does not have the resources to safely conduct burning and a private vendor is not available, the Division of Forestry may provide assistance on a cost-reimbursement basis.
For private, non-industrial landowners, Crawford is proposing that the state provide incentives of up to $5 per acre, on a 50/50 cost-share basis, for up to 1,000 acres on properties that have not been burned within the past five years. It is estimated that no more than 100,000 additional acres would be treated during the first year of such a program.
Forestry is considering expanding the hours covered by daytime burning permits. Currently, daytime permits require landowners to cease burning one hour before sunset, and the change being considered would allow burning until one hour after sunset.
While Crawfords office is still refining aspects of its budget request for the next fiscal year, it will no doubt include funding for 86 firefighter positions and four helicopter pilots. Sixteen senior foresters will conduct programs to educate the public about the need for prescribed burning, and ways in which to protect themselves from future wildfires.
There will also be a request to purchase additional helicopter buckets for National Guard use, giving the guard a total of six helicopters available for emergency response.
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