TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Drivers on Interstate 75 could still be unprotected from smoke and fog for one more wildfire season.
On Thursday, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement released a 37-page report that exposed the mistakes state troopers made when they reopened the interstate in January, and 11 people died in pileups that followed.
At least a dozen cars and pickup trucks, six semi-trailers and a motor home collided in north Florida near Gainesville. Some vehicles burst into flames, making it difficult to identify the victims.
On Friday, WFTV has learned the state can't install permanent warning signs until the end of this year.
The FDLE report said it took less than 30 minutes for wildfire smoke and fog to cut visibility from half a mile to 3 feet or less.
The Florida Department of Transportation was never able to post their temporary warning signs to tell drivers how dangerous visibility was becoming.
After the tragedy, state lawmakers acted fast. Within weeks, $2 million was put in the state budget to buy as many as eight permanent digital signs that could be updated along I-75.
“They'll span the whole interstate,” said state Rep. Keith Perry. “They're electronic informational signs. You see them all over Florida."
But that's where the quick action stopped. FDOT said it has to study which locations are most prone to a mixture of wildfire smoke and fog, and it won't have the money for that study until the state's new budget takes effect in July.
The research could take two weeks, which means there will be no signs for this year's fire season.
In the meantime, the Florida Forest Service is bracing for what could be the one of the worst fire seasons on record.
“Everything burns. The swamps burn. The stumps burn what we call 1,000-hour fuels,” said Jim Karels of the FFS. “They’ll burn in these drought conditions, and they'll provide all the smoke."
WFTV learned state transportation officials will partner with the University of Central Florida and Florida State University to conduct the study.