Officials hunt for arsonist setting record number of wildfires near North Port

These fires have been popping up near the Sarasota-Charlotte County border

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. (WFLA) – Fire officials say an arsonist is on the loose, setting a record number of wildfires south of North Port.

Firefighters have their work cut out for them – Hurricane Irma debris and the recent cold weather is adding to a perfect storm of fire problems.

Fire crews have been desperately trying to stop this recent dangerous trend. 

“There’s a lot of innocent people that this person put at risk,” said Patrick Mahoney with the Florida Forest Service.

Just since Jan. 1, the Florida Forest Service has responded to nearly 50 arson fires in the Myakka River District. It’s a record number, and most of the fires have centered around the Sarasota-Charlotte County border.

“They’re off back roads where there are no structures, there’s nobody around so it would be easy to set it, get out, nobody would ever see ya,” described Mahoney.

He said its clear someone is intentionally setting these fires.

“There’s not been any lightning. It’s not transportation, it’s not a campfire, it’s not children, so we just started deducting what it could be,” said Mahoney.

Hurricane Irma and the recent cold snaps are adding to the mix – there’s more dead vegetation than normal, which can help fires quickly spread.

Firefighters have had to change their tactics.

“They’re having to really back off and skirt around the fire because of the downed debris that they can’t get through,” said Mahoney.

“Unacceptable for people to do that,” said nearby resident Hugo Rodriguez.

Rodriguez has seen the flames yards from his home.

Officials say if unchecked, these fires can threaten houses or the interstate nearby.

“He has to stop! He has to stop or its gonna be worse for him,” said Rodriguez.

Officials don’t know if this is the work of one arsonist, or a group of them. The Florida Division of Forestry is offering a $5,000 reward for any information leading to an arrest.

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