TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Two Florida forest rangers were killed when a small, smoldering wildfire flared up and trapped them, state officials said Tuesday. Two comrades trying to rescue them also were injured.
It's the first time since 2000 that a forestry division employee has died fighting a wildfire. The rangers were plowing with bulldozers Monday to contain a 12-acre blaze on the Georgia line that's among 400 wildfires currently burning. The Blue Ribbon Fire about 85 miles northeast of Tallahassee had previously been declared contained, but it flared back up.
"The weather can change in Florida very quickly and that's what we experienced," said state forestry director Jim Karels.
Forestry officials and the local sheriff's office are investigating exactly how the fire killed 31-year-old Josh Burch of Lake City and 52-year-old Brett Fulton of White Springs, authorities said.
The Division of Forestry's last fatality in the line of duty came in 2000 when a helicopter pilot crashed after dumping water on a blaze near Fort Myers. The last time a ranger or firefighter died battling a wildfire on the ground was 1985.
Two other rangers, Robert Marvin and Stephen Carpenter, suffered smoke- and heat-related injuries in a rescue attempt Monday. They were treated and released.
Karels called their rescue effort "very heroic" but said they had to turn back because of tremendous heat and smoke. The Blue Ribbon Fire, which had been burning since June 16, was later contained.
Both of the deceased rangers were married. Fulton had two grown children and Burch had two sons, ages 4 and 5, said Agriculture Department spokesman Sterling Ivey. Burch had been with the department's Division of Forestry for ten years and Fulton for 12 years.
"They don't do it for the money," Karels said. "They love the job. They do it to serve the citizens."
Rain forecast for Wednesday could aid firefighters around the state, though Karels cautions that accompanying lightning could create sparks before trees and underbrush become damp enough to resist burning.
He said Florida is running a rainfall deficit this year, and temperatures of up to 104 degrees have made some areas very dry. Already, 2011 is the state's 11th-worst year on record for wildfires – with more than 3,600 blazes burning over 190,000 acres. Florida firefighters have been facing an average of more than 31 new wildfires every day.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam met with the families of the rangers who died.
"We can rebuild the structures and restore the land, but the lives of these two heroes can never be replaced," Putnam said in a statement.