More than 1,000 acres of oak and pine have burned in a fire that has fed on bone-dry conditions across northern Florida.
Flames leaping to 25 feet combined with heat and smoke to create an eerie, red-and-orange glow on the horizon Monday. Smoke billowed into a column a half-mile wide and spread to Tallahassee, more than 20 miles away."Potentially this fire could eat 5,000 acres," said Gene Madden, a Florida fire manager working with the U.S. Forest Service. "We are probably going to see some (serious) fire activity in the next few days."
Authorities were checking to see if the fire was set. It moved deep into the Apalachicola National Forest, 600,000 acres of oak and longleaf pines, and no structures were at risk. But a lack of rain coupled with record heat have Florida fire managers worried that a mammoth blaze could engulf hundreds of thousands of acres - and at least as many homes.
"We're not very different than California," said Andrew Colaninno, an Apalachicola National Forest ranger. "We could burn up a whole community. We could be losing lives."
The state division of forestry has suspended all open burning. Federal fire managers have banned any burning in national forests outside of designated recreational areas. "This is serious," Madden said. "This is a statewide problem, and people are concerned."
Even a conservative estimate puts millions of homes across Florida at risk, he said. Before Monday's blaze, fire officials said at least 9,000 acres have been scorched statewide this year.
It is particularly dry in northern Florida, with swamps and grass drying up and shrubs and trees browning in temperatures that have gone over 100 degrees. On the floor of the Apalachicola is an 8-inch-thick carpet of dead branches, fallen pine needles, dead moss and brittle leaves.