Florida is home to millions of residents who enjoy the state's beautiful scenery and warm climate. But few people realize that these qualities also create severe wildfire conditions. Each year, thousands of acres of wildland and many homes are destroyed by fires that can erupt at any time of the year from a variety of causes, including arson, lightning and debris burning. Adding to the fire hazard is the growing number of people living in new communities built in areas that were once wildland. This growth places even greater pressure on the state's wildland firefighters. As a result of this growth, fire protection becomes everyone's responsibility.
Florida has experienced fires on a cycle of every three to five years since vegetation has crowded its shores and since lightning has lit its skies. In recorded history, Florida's fires received national media attention in the 1920s, which led to the creation of the Florida Division of Forestry. The 1935 Big Scrub Fire in the Ocala National Forest was the fastest spreading fire in the history of the U.S., covering 35,000 acres in 4 hours. In 1956, the Buckhead Fire burned 100,000 acres in Osceola National Forest in a single day. In the drought period of 1969 to 1976, fires in the Everglades again gained national attention, with some fires reaching 50,000 acres.
In 1985, Florida had its first serious "wildland/urban interface" fire with the Palm Coast Fire, which burned 250 homes.
This fire was important in introducing the state to the concept of the wildland/urban interface. Research on this fire indicated that a model could predict home survivability based only on the intensity of the fire, presence of roof overhang vinyl vents, and proximity of heavy ground vegetation to the structure.
In 1998, fires struck the same Palm Coast subdivision. 45,000 people were evacuated and fire suppression organizations responded from 44 states.
In July of 1998, Florida hosted the largest aerial suppression operation ever conducted in the United States. Largely because of this massive effort, protection of structures was quite successful, with only 337 homes damaged or destroyed and 33 businesses burned. Although this is small compared to 475,000 structures lost in the U.S. per year to all fire incidents (National Fire Protection Association statistics), the fires received major media attention for almost two months, largely because of the massive evacuation. To the insurance industry, however, this is a relatively small incident, and is not likely to provide the social impact needed for significant behavioral changes, with regards to wildfire education. To fire researchers, the 1998 Palm Coast incident is interesting, because the same subdivision was burned thirteen years earlier and the same findings are relevant thirteen years later: ground vegetation and roof overhang vents were once again responsible for the loss of homes.