Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam released the arson information to promote National Arson Awareness Week, and draw attention to the 2,015 wildfires that have burned on state and federally managed lands in Florida since Jan. 1.
Palm Beach County has had 18 wildfires, five of which were intentionally set. Of 54 Treasure Coast wildfires, eight were intentional, said Scott Peterich, Florida Forest Service Wildfire Mitigation Specialist.
This past year at this time, Palm Beach County had just three wildfires, none of which were arson related. The Treasure Coast had 17, two of which were started intentionally.
Dry conditions have made Florida more susceptible to wildfires this year compared to 2016 when record rainfall was measured during winter months.
Despite recent showers, Peterich said there is still a fire danger statewide. About half of the counties in the state, including Palm Beach County, are under burn bans, and the Storm Prediction Center has most of the Florida Peninsula at an elevated risk of fire.
The National Weather Service had areas of Miami-Dade County and southwest Florida under a red-flag fire warning Sunday and Monday because of low humidity levels.
“Until the skies open up and just pour, and pour, and pour, we are vulnerable,” Peterich said. “I know fire activity in the district has slowed, but it started again (Sunday.)”
A 28-acre wildfire in Martin County burned Sunday, but was contained Monday. The Florida Forest Service said the fire started when a spark from a stuck vehicle ignited dry grass.
As of Monday, there were 129 active wildfires in Florida, burning tens of thousands of acres.
One of the largest fires, dubbed the West Mims Fire, is in the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge on the border of Florida and Georgia.
According to a federal report, it was caused by lightning in early April and has since burned more than 130,000 acres.
During the weekend, the fire burned a tractor that became disabled on a stump, and was making an “aggressive” push to the south ahead of gusty northwest winds.
The fire is so large, it was clearly seen in images taken by the new GOES-16 weather satellite.
Lightning was the cause of 88 fires this year, up from 48 during the same time period in 2016.
Peterich said lightning-ignited fires could worsen as Florida’s thunderstorm season approaches with the onset of summer.
“If you go three or four days without rain and this kind of low humidity, the dryness comes right back,” Peterich said. Remember, this dryness dates back to October or November.”
While Palm Beach County was nearly drought free in Thursday’s report from the U.S. Drought Monitor, areas north of Lake Okeechobee escalated to severe drought. The Upper Kissimmee basin is down more than 9 inches of rain for the year, according to the South Florida Water Management District.
In the 16-county region managed by the district, the average seasonal rain deficit is 6.23 inches.
To report suspicious wildfire activity, contact the department’s Arson Alert Hotline at (800) 342-5869. Callers can remain anonymous and could earn up to a $5,000 reward.