Wildfires scorch parts of Florida; gov. declares emergency

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) – Firefighters are battling wildfires from the top of Florida near the Georgia line to Miami-Dade County in the south as the governor declared a state of emergency Tuesday.

Gov. Rick Scott said the proclamation will make it easier for state, regional and local agencies to “quickly work together to protect our families, visitors and communities” as authorities battle more than 100 wildfires around the state.

“Thank God we have the firefighters we do at the local, state and federal level and willing to put their lives at risk to take care of us,” he added. “If it hadn’t been for their hard work we would’ve lost a lot of homes … all across the state.”

The blaze is also affecting wildlife. On Sunday, Pembroke Pines Police reported that a group of teens caught a 13-foot python with burns on its skin in that South Florida community near the Everglades Wildlife Management Area.

“Due to the brush fires in the Everglades, you may see a rise in wildlife entering residential areas to escape the smoke and flames,” the police department wrote on its Facebook page. It added photos of the snake, which was being treated at a wildlife park.

Wildfires are burning on a total of more than 23,800 acres (9,600 hectares) of land and have destroyed 19 homes, authorities said.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said this is the most active wildfire season since 2011, with some 107 fires statewide.

A Florida Fire Service map shows most of the fires have sprung up between Lake Okeechobee to the south and the Ocala National Forest to the north. Scott’s executive order is expected to speed government assistance in hard-hit Polk, Collier, Marion, Nassau, Broward, Hernando and Glades counties.

Since February, wildfires have swept across 68,000 acres (25,500 hectares) of the state. That amount is higher than the average acreage burned over the past five years.

The largest blaze right now is the one known as the Cowbell Fire in South Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve, which has spread to more than 8,000 acres (3,200 hectares) just north of Interstate 75.

Authorities lightning set off a wildfire in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and it has continued to spread, burning through more than 9 square miles (23 square kilometers) of swamp and forestland near the Georgia-Florida state line.

Susan Heisey, supervisory ranger for the south Georgia refuge, said Tuesday that more firefighters are being added to a team of more than 100 trying to contain the blaze to public land.

Heisey said the fire began in the southern portion of the Okefenokee refuge’s vast 407,000 acres (16,400 hectares). She said it has now spread into the neighboring Osceola National Forest and John M. Bethea State Forest in Florida.

In Pasco County, north of Tampa, voluntary evacuations were issued Monday and an emergency shelter was opened. The evacuation order was rescinded and the shelter closed later Monday evening but officials there are warning residents to be ready in case evacuations are again recommended.

One fire near Oviedo in central Florida over the weekend resulted in evacuations of nearly 40 homes and harrowing moments for firefighters. And a Hernando County brush fire apparently sparked by lightning on Saturday had widened to 1,100 acres (445 hectares) by Monday.

The dry conditions mark a sharp contrast to 2016, when the state was drenched by two hurricanes. Many areas are experiencing drought and authorities said that’s a big factor in why so many wildfires have ignited. April and May are traditionally Florida’s driest months.

Putnam said about 90 percent of the fires this year have been sparked by humans.

State health officials warn that wildfire smoke affects people with chronic lung and heart problems and asthma. Doctors have advised people with these conditions should limit their outdoor activities if wildfires are burning nearby.

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