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Two firefighters die as Fla. battles 400 fires

/ Source: staff and news service reports

Florida's tough wildfire season has claimed the lives of two firefighters as the tinder-dry state on Tuesday battled more than 400 active blazes.

Two forest rangers with the state Division of Forestry were killed on Monday while fighting a fire in Hamilton County in north Florida. They were the first firefighters in the state in 26 years to be overcome while battling a wildfire.

"The wildfires have ravaged our state, burning more than 200,000 acres, and now, they have taken the lives of two of our very own men," Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said in a statement.

"My thoughts and prayers go out to the families and loved ones of Josh Burch and Brett Fulton, two courageous heroes who sacrificed their lives for the safety of others."

The rangers were plowing with bulldozers to contain a 12-acre blaze on the Georgia line. 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 suffered smoke- and heat-related injuries in a rescue attempt. 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.

Since May, state and local firefighters have battled more than 1,500 wildfires that have burned nearly 200,000 acres across the state, making it one of the busiest wildfire years in recent history.

Florida firefighters face an average of 31 new wildfires every day, most caused by lightning strikes.

May is typically the peak of wildfire season in Florida, but a lack of rain in June has exacerbated fire conditions.

"It's been a very active season that is extending quite a bit longer than normal," said Sterling Ivey, spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "In June, we normally see the rate of fires coming down. We're not seeing that this year."

On June 3, Gov. Rick Scott signed an executive order directing the state Division of Emergency Management to oversee relief efforts as fires raged throughout the state.

"The bottom line is we need rain," Ivey said. "Lots of it."

Nationally, more than 4.3 million acres have burned since January 1, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.