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Friday, September 18, 2015

The Florida Wildfires of 1998

& is used with permission.
I didn't realize until David mentioned it that I've never written about my experiences with the 1998 Florida fires. Given that it was 17 years ago and that newspapers weren't online at the time, my recollections are going to be spotty and sometimes not backed up by credible links, so some of what I write here might be proven to be in error later.

Setting the Stage
(All photos in this section courtesy of the NOAA National Climatic Data Center.)

In 1988, Florida experienced the perfect storm of environmental conditions. A very mild, very wet winter had nurtured the growth of underbrush, and so by spring the ground was littered with grasses, shrubs, baby trees and the like.

What many people don't realize about Florida is that it's frequently a drought state. There's a running joke that everything south of Melbourne* is a sandbar, and while that's not actually correct, there's more than a little truth to it -- large parts of the state are just thin layers of topsoil over clay. This means that, although it rains a lot in Florida, that water isn't being absorbed by the ground into aquifers; instead, it runs off into canals, swamps, and hammocks, and then likely out to sea. This is why, if you've ever visited, you see lots of retention ponds; they are there to catch and hold rainwater.


This is important to note because, after a very wet winter, rainfall went from "way over what is normal" to "less than half of normal" in a span of about two months.


This, combined with amazingly hot temperatures (thanks in part to El NiƱo), meant that all this lush underbrush died due to lack of water; there wasn't enough falling from the sky, and there wasn't enough found in the ground. The predictable result of this was that there was now a lot of tinder covering Florida's forests.


In other words, we were living in a tinderbox.  

Fun fact: Florida is the lightning strike capital of the United States. The area between Orlando and Tampa Bay is known as "lightning alley" and it averages fifty strikes per square mile each year

You can see where this is going.

The Perfect Firestorm
I don't think it's ever been determined how many fires were caused by lightning and how many were caused by arson (either negligent or deliberate). I know that we had plenty of all three, and that all fireworks displays (even the ones put on by cities) were cancelled or postponed out of a sense of caution.

It didn't help. In fact, the fires were so big that you could see them from space:


I cannot find a citation for this, but I recall hearing that at one point, every single county in Florida, except the Keys, was on fire.

By late June, 128 wildfires were burning across the state. 69 of them started on a single day!
This map shows the major fires that occurred between June 5, 1998 and July 9, 1998.
Picture courtesy of http://www.react4800.org/photos/fs1998_maps.html
By July 3, the entire county that I lived in -- 35,000 people -- was evacuated. This was done because fires were surrounding us on three sides, and there were fears that we might get surrounded and obliterated. I remember some people saying "The fire will burn itself out once it reaches the Intracoastal Waterway, because it will hit water and stop. There's no need to evacuate." Those people were foolish, because that fire became so hot that it was generating its own wind and blowing embers across the water.

Fortunately, my family had evacuated earlier. I recall, from the relative safety of an hour's drive south, of seeing something floating down from the sky in the parking lot of the hotel where we were staying. I caught it in my hand -- it was a leaf that had burned so quickly that it had been turned into ash without losing its leaf shape.

It was, essentially, snowing ash.

Go here to see a gallery of photos taken during and after the fires.

Aftermath
By the end of July, a total of 2,277 fires had burned almost a half million acres, and yet only 337 homes and 33 businesses were damaged or destroyed.

I'm honestly not sure how the firefighters managed it, other than sheer determination and throwing lots of people at the blaze -- we had no fewer than firefighters from 44 states battling the blaze, and at the time it was the largest aerial suppression operation ever conducted in the United States.

I got off pretty easily: my home was fine and no one in my family was hurt, although the place smelled like a forest fire for weeks afterwards. I did breathe a lot of smoke during those months, though, and it messed up my lungs somewhat. I'm also allergic to most trees, so breathing burnt allergens likely didn't help either. To this day I can't stand to be around a wood fire unless it's burning very cleanly.

I'm not the only one who had respiratory problems: during those two months, emergency room visits for asthma doubled, and emergency room visits for acute exacerbation of bronchitis increased by 132 percent.
There were large sections of the county that were burned so badly that the trees were blackened husks and the ground beneath them was ashen gray. It was eerie and surreal, like a piece of alien landscape had replaced familiar territory.

http://www.trbimg.com/img-511639a0/turbine/orl-1998wildfire16pic20070308135441/500/500x281
In Conclusion
Have an evacuation plan. Bugging in is great for storms, but terrible for fires.

Keep tabs on the situation as it develops. The fires were extremely fluid, ironically enough.

Don't be afraid to leave before being told to evacuate. Our lives were so much easier by getting out before it was mandatory.

Don't expect to get off easy. Plan for things to be so much worse.

Go read David's post on the California fires if you haven't yet. It has good information. 



* Think Kennedy Space Center -- it's not actually Melbourne, but it ought to help you visualize what I'm talking about.

The Fine Print


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- Noncommercial- No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

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