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Officials trying to keep wildfire season in check

March 22, 2011
By TIFFANY REPECKI, trepecki@breezenewspapers.com

With wildfire season coming into full swing, officials are reminding residents to take proper measures to protect their homes and prevent brush fires.

In Lee County, wildfire activity typically picks up in March or April and lasts through June or July, until the steady rains set in.

Mike Weston, a senior forester with the Florida Division of Forestry, said an outlook released last week is predicting favorable conditions for wildfires.

"The next three to four months are expected to be even warmer, or drier, than normal," he said.

As of Friday, Lee County ranked in the low 500s on the drought index, putting it in the top 10 percent of the driest counties in the state.

Lee County also ranked "very high" on the fire danger index.

"We've generally been on this dry trend since last summer because we really didn't get a lot of tropical moisture," Weston said.

Rainfall in February was well below normal, and March is still below normal.

"As opposed to last year, most of our cold fronts have been coming through with more limited rain," Division Chief Tom Tomich, with the Cape Coral Fire Department, said.

"This is typically dry season, and those years when you get cold fronts that have precipitation, it helps to retard the combustible vegetation," he said.

Higher temperatures help to accelerate the drying out of vegetation, while frost-killed vegetation could also play a part in the level of wildfire activity.

In the coming months, lightning will also have an impact.

"Lightning is eventually going to come, so make those preparations," Weston said.

Preparing at home

Residents should cut their lawns, attempt to keep them green, and remove dead vegetation from around their homes. They can also make sure there is 1 foot of non-combustible material surrounding the residence, like rocks or gravel.

Clear gutters of pine needles and debris, keep a 30-foot defensive space around the home in case fire personnel need to access it to protect it, and be sure to remove large piles of brush or lawn trimmings from that space.

The home's address number should be easily visible for emergency units.

According to Weston, residents also can work with neighbors to prepare their properties for season. Having four or five maintained homes near one another can exponentially increase the chance of protecting those homes.

"Good outdoor housekeeping practices is the key to it all," Tomich said.

A mandatory lot mowing ordinance has been helping to reduce the chance of wildfires in the Cape for 20 years. Lot owners are billed through their taxes.

"We still get the grass fires, but they would be much more violent and more loss of potential property," Tomich said.

The city is the only municipality in Southwest Florida with that ordinance.

"Cape Coral is pretty well off because of the mowing program the city does," Weston said. "You can still have wildfires, but with a lot less intensity."

Residents should also avoid setting fires or burning trash, and report any such instances to authorities. Do not throw cigarettes butts out of vehicle windows, and, when using a campfire in the woods, do so in a cleared area.

"We've seen a bit of an uptick in small nuisance type fires as opposed to previous years," Tomich said.

"People carelessly burning debris, trash or vegetation on their properties," he said. "Bon fires and outside fires in either windy conditions or areas that are very dry or densely covered."

A look at the numbers

According to Weston, the Florida Division of Forestry is now responding to two or three small fires per day in Lee County. On a larger scale, eight fires had been recorded for the year as of Friday, with a total of 124 acres burnt. An acre equals 209 feet by 209 feet, or an area the size of a football field.

In 2010, there were 69 wildfires in Lee County. The county ranked in the bottom half statewide for the level of fire activity recorded that season.

"In 2010, which was an exception, we got a lot of constant rain," he said. "Statewide, we had overall a very light fire season."

In 2010, Florida saw 3,172 wildfires that burned 53,184 acres.

Officials expect this wildfire season to mirror the years of 2007-09.

"When we had extremely dry weather," Weston said.

"We're setting up for a pattern that's similar to, or worse than, those three years," he said.

During this same time in 2007, Lee County had experienced 16 wildfires, with a total of 166 acres burned. By the end of June, it had seen 100 fires, with a total of 5,667 acres involved.

"2007 started off slow as well," Weston said.

This year, one potential threat to emergency responders' responses is the budget and staff cuts that many local and state agencies are facing. Tomich said the city's partner agencies may not be able to send help and vice versa.

On Friday, the Cape sent a brush truck out to Lehigh to provide mutual aid. Tomich said for that type of call, the Cape department typically would have sent the brush truck, along with a fire engine and a supervisor to help out.

 
 

 

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