Forestry officials say a suspected serial arsonist may be behind dozens of wildfires in Sarasota and Charlotte counties.
There have been 47 cases of suspected arson in that region since the start of this year. Between 2012 and 2017, there were only eight.
Patrick Mahoney, wildfire mitigation specialist with the Florida Forest Service, said many of the fires are grouped around Interstate 75 in North Port and State Road 776 in Port Charlotte.
“We’ve been fortunate with small fires, but one was right by the interstate,” Mahoney said. “If the wind direction would have pushed it, you’re looking at closing down the interstate, smoke on the road, possible accidents.”
Mahoney said more than a dozen arsons occurred within a single day. It is unclear if more than one person is purposely setting the fires.
The largest of the arsons scorched about three acres, he said. Recent rains have kept the first from growing, but there is still a lot of debris on the forest bed from Hurricane Irma that make the area more susceptible to larger fires.
"It’s never a good time to have an arsonist running around, but this makes it even worse just because of all the down vegetation and dead vegetation that is on the ground," he said.
The Florida Forest Service is working alongside local law enforcement to catch the person or persons setting the fires.
Mahoney said the hunt for the arsonist is taking up important resources from law enforcement and leaving many area residents worried for their safety.
“The ones in North Port happened in about the same location as a 6,000-acre fire we had last year,” he said. “The people in that general area are thinking ‘Oh no, here we go again.’”
The Florida's Forestry Arson Alert Association has offered a $5,000 award for any information leading to an arrest. The Florida Division of Forestry's arson line can be reached at 1-800-342-5869.