CBSN

Were Florida Fires Preventable?

Sixty-five year-old Junior Strickland is scraping up what's left of his livelihood. Wildfires destroyed three fourths of his 8,000-acre timber farm. State farmers say controlled burning could have prevented disaster.

"If I would of had the permits that I needed this winter...they would have been scorched, but they would have been alive," says Strickland.

Controlled burning is a sensitive subject in Florida. With new subdivisions going up where timber once grew, many urban residents don't want smoke drifting through their well-manicured neighborhoods. However, farmers say the technique allows them to burn off the dry bush that fueled the wildfires.

Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles admits it was a hard lesson to learn.

"I think after this, a lot of those people will be much more ready to say, let's have some controlled burning," he says.

The five-week firestorm consumed over half of Florida's commercial timber and about $300 million. From timber farmers to homeowners to small businesses on the beach, the summer wildfires have made it tough on everybody here.

"I sell hotel supplies up and down the beach," says Sam Cumpston. "I've been here 27 years and I've never seen anything like this."

Small merchants here say it may take them a year to recover. Junior Strickland fears he may never regain what he's lost.

"This was my livelihood," says Strickland. "It was going to send my children, my grandchildren...to college."

Many say it could have been avoided.

Reported by Byron Pitts
©1998, CBS Worldwide Inc., All Rights Reserved