State-Contracted Firm Caused Wildfire That Burned 36 North Florida Homes

A firm hired by a state agency to conduct a prescribed burn sparked a weekend wildfire that burned 820 acres and 36 homes in Northwest Florida, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which hired the firm, announced it had suspended its prescribed-burn program statewide as it investigates the wildfire in Franklin County.

Putnam announced that an investigation by his Office of Agricultural Law Enforcement put the cause of the Eastpoint fire on a prescribed burn conducted by Wildland Fire Services, Inc., which had a contract with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Putnam’s said investigators had looked into other possible causes, such as lightning, arson or a blaze accidentally started by a person.

According to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the firm was contracted to conduct a 480-acre prescribed burn in the Apalachicola River Wildlife and Environmental Area on June 18, about a week before what has become known as the Lime Rock wildfire. This prescribed burn — the commission is one of several government agencies that oversee burns on more than 100,000 acres of public lands each year — was separated from the Eastpoint neighborhood by 580 acres of private land.

The commission’s inspector general is investigating to determine whether procedures and operations in the prescribed-fire program were followed. Prescribed burns are conducted to help manage forests and, at least in part, to eliminate undergrowth that can serve as fuel for wildfires.

“If the multiple ongoing investigations find that any safety protocols were not followed, we will take the proper steps to ensure accountability,” commission Executive Director Eric Sutton said in a prepared statement. “Our focus remains with the families who were affected by the wildfire, and our agency is committed to working to help this community get back on its feet.”

On Tuesday, Putnam praised the work of firefighters from multiple agencies who were able to quash what had been rapidly spreading flames that threatened an additional 400 homes.

“If they had not responded and evacuated as quickly as they did, there could have been further injuries and potentially loss of life,” Putnam said.

Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis on Wednesday announced that the state is offering up to $5,000 per household for emergency living expenses, including housing, clothing, food and pet care.

“Residents who lost everything shouldn’t have to wait for government bureaucracy,” Patronis said in a statement. “I’ve directed my staff to get boots on the ground to help those impacted to have an expedited track back to normalcy.”

The fire occurred a decade after an ember from a prescribed burn by a separate state agency drifted near Tate’s Hell State Forest in Franklin County and destroyed 835 acres of land owned by the Shuler Limited Partnership.

Shuler, which won a Franklin County lawsuit that alleged negligence by the Florida Forest Service for the 2008 blaze, has for the past several years sought passage of a $670,493 “claim” bill because of the damage but has repeatedly failed to win legislative support.

A jury awarded $741,496 in damages and $28,997 in costs to Shuler, but the Forest Service only paid $100,000 because of the state's sovereign-immunity laws.

This year the proposal (SB 34), sponsored by Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, was approved 36-1 by the Senate, but the House version (HB 6531) was not heard by House committees.

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