Three Counties Hit Hard
Three of the hardest hit counties were Flagler, Brevard and Volusia, all on the eastern seaboard of Florida.
A mandatory order on July 2 forced the evacuation of the entire 30,000 population of Flagler County. Areas in Brevard and Volusia Counties were also under evacuation orders, bringing the total to more than 112,000 residents out of their homes during the July 4th weekend. At the height of the evacuation orders, some 125,000 residents had been asked to leave their homes.
In the town of Bunnel, located in Flagler County, three fierce brush fires to the north, south and west threatened to unite in one giant blaze on July 2. By July 3, wind shifts and cooler temperatures had alleviated some of the threats, but residents were not immediately allowed back into their homes.
In Volusia County, the towns of Ormond Beach, Holly Hill and the Daytona Beach area were hardest hit. Between 10,000 and 20,000 people, including two nursing homes, were under mandatory evacuation orders through the July 4th weekend. Four businesses and 46 homes were destroyed or damaged in that county.
In Brevard County, fires near Scottsmoor burned a gas station, a Dairy Queen ice cream shop and several mobile homes on July 1. Scottsmoor is located just inland from Cape Canaveral. Thick smoke filled the air as the two businesses, located along I-95, went up in flames.
Fires also raged near Ormond Beach and Daytona Beach in Volusia County, just north of Brevard County, forcing evacuations and creating thick clouds of smoke over the area.
Tourism, Economy Suffer
The Daytona International Speedway was forced to postpone the first nighttime running of the NASCAR Pepsi 400 stock car race. The event was to have taken place on July 4 before a sold-out crowd. It was rescheduled for October. Instead, the raceway was being used as a shelter for some evacuees and for housing heavy firefighting equipment.
Experts predict the postponement of the Pepsi 400 race likely cost millions of dollars in lost revenues to the raceway, race sponsors, the city, and to CBS, which was to broadcast the event.
Rescheduling the race was a tough decision for the raceway officials. Contingency planners should study the Pepsi 400 situation. There are many lessons to learn.
Flagler Beach, usually crowded with 25,000 people on the Fourth of July, was empty for miles in both directions. The shops in the area were closed, forcing business owners to miss out on tourism dollars that usually come from holiday visitors.
Beach hotels in Flagler County offered cut rates to anyone willing to stay for the July 4 holiday, and sites across Florida canceled Independence Day displays because of a state-wide ban on fireworks.
Some areas, though close to the fires, remained unaffected by tourism losses. Orlando and its businesses, including Walt Disney World, report they have not been impacted by the fires, except for some smoke and haze. Tourism has remained steady.
Cattle, Timber Industry See Losses
The timber industry in Florida has also been hit hard. Losses in the industry had risen to at least $188 million in July. Almost half of the fires in Florida have been in commercial timber land.
Florida�s farmers and ranchers have also suffered because of the fires, and the accompanying droughts. By early July, crop losses had reached $135 million and livestock losses had reached $171 million. Many farmers were being forced to sell their cattle at a loss because they lack hay and feed. Ranchers who chose not to sell at a loss were paying higher prices for feed and hay. Officials said the drought and fires have ruined Florida�s hay crops and grazing pastures. In addition, the fires have burned many fences, allowing cattle to escape, causing additional losses for ranchers.
Transportation and Travel Affected
The fires shut down I-95 from Jacksonville to Titusville near Cape Canaveral, a distance of about 125 miles. Interstate 95 is a major north-south coastal highway. Traffic was being diverted onto alternative routes. Some small sections of I-95 were opened temporarily for evacuation routes.
Tourists driving into the state of Florida were advised to stop at Welcome Centers for up-to-date information on the fires and road closures.
Air travel into the state was largely unaffected, though a smoky haze hung over some airports. Several airports located near roaring blazes, however, were closed. Both the Ormond Beach Airport and the Daytona Beach International Airport were closed at one point, the latter because of a non-operational radar system.
1,900 Fires Since May
Firefighters blame record heat and drought in the area for the wildfires, which began around Memorial Day. In total, more than 475,000 acres in Florida have been burned by more than 1,900 fires that have hit the state since May 25.
About 200 homes and other buildings have burned and at least 100 people have been injured. Some 4,000 firefighters from across the nation battled the blazes.
Florida was first hit with heavy rains during the winter months, causing a thick growth of pine and palmetto scrub in undeveloped areas. The rains were followed by the driest, hottest May and June in state history, according to the National Weather Service.
Calculating The Cost
As of July 5, the initial cost of battling the Florida fires had reached $106 million. The tab included the cost of importing fire fighters, equipment, and National Guardsmen to watch unoccupied areas. Overall, damages were estimated to exceed $500 million, including property and economic losses.
The affects of the fires could have long-range impacts on U.S. consumers. Experts say the price of Florida-grown produce could rise because of the fires and drought in the state. The cost of other products could rise too, if companies have had their business operations interrupted by Florida�s disaster.
The federal government has pledged $60 million in aid from the President�s Disaster Fund to help battle the wildfires and prevent new ones from starting. Federal assistance was ordered for 34 counties in Florida as of July 1.
Richard L. Arnold, CBCP, is Editor-in-Chief for the Disaster Recovery Journal.