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MORE than 1,900 fires have devoured forests, green cover, shops, business establishments and homes in an area comprising more than 100,000 hectares (ha) in Florida in the US. The fires have been blazing away for more than a month less than 40 kilometres away from the legendary Disney World, the most popular tourist attraction in the US.
Hundreds of homes, mobile homes and vehicles had been destroyed and close to 70,000 people have been evacuated at one point or another since the fires began. The temperatures have soared to over 38C. Fire-fighters continue to battle the flames and planes and helicopters functioning as aerial water tankers carry on spraying water in a futile effort to control the inferno. The Florida highway patrol has also been forced to close 225 km of the interstate freeway from Jacksonville to Cocoa beach.
In Brevard county, west of the Kennedy Space Center, advancing walls of flames 20 to 30-km-long forced evacuation of residents from the towns of Scottsmoor and Mims. However, the Space Center, east of the Scottsmoor fire, is not threatened as it is located across the intracoastal waterway and is out of the line of the advancing flames.
Officials trying to estimate the number of buildings destroyed said that in Volusia at least 10 houses and 20 business establishments had been gutted, while in Brevard 50 homes and several commercial establishments were destroyed. State officials are calling it the worst wildfire season in nearly 13 years. High temperatures and low humidity have combined this year to make the state a veritable tinder box. However, it is not clear whether it is due to the El Nino phenomenon or global warming.
Florida governor Lawton Chiles had, as early as June 7, declared a state of emergency and requested assistance from federal agencies and nearby states. Extra fire-fighters had been flown in from California to join hands with 4,000 of their colleagues from other parts of the US in response to Chiles' distress call. But to little avail. Fanned by 32 kmph winds, the flames have leapt over fire-breaks created by bulldozers thereby causing the fire-fighters to retreat.
The fires, according to the state governor, are "the like of which Florida has never seen before". The whole of Flagler county in northeast Florida is being evacuated amid fears that it could be overwhelmed by the fires any day.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has set up camp at Tallahassee to oversee fire-fighting efforts, the fire was to the north, south and west. A major cause for concern among fire-fighters and the authorities was that it was possible for the flames to converge into one big blaze.
In southeast Georgia, flames consumed 1,200 ha of parched timberland in Charlton and Wayne counties, about 32 km north of Jacksonville, Florida.
"There's nothing but black on both sides of the road," Wayne county chief forest ranger Brantley McManus said recently while speaking to the local press. "It (the fire) was devastating. It destroyed everything out there."
"It's just not a stable situation," agrees Gene Madden, spokesperson for the Florida division of forestry. "We have several major areas with very active fires, including sites in the state of Georgia, ' threatening to jump the river and come into Nassau county (Florida)."
According to scientists at the University of Massachusetts, USA, the year 1998 has been one of the hottest in the last 600 years. It has been marked by fires all over the world, some of which were first noticed last year. The haze which shrouded Southeast Asia was a result of the fires in Indonesia and Borneo. The extreme dry conditions prevailing in the region due to El Nino merely aggravated the situation. Millions of hectares of forest land were destroyed in fires in the Australian outback and also the Amazon rain-forests in South America.
Was it only due to human activity or did the unusually hot and dry conditions play a part? Should we expect more forest fires and drier and hotter weather conditions in the future?