Florida fire season

Officials expect harsh fire season
Drought, hurricane debris fuel danger in SW Florida

22 November 2004
published by: www.news-press.com 

Fires aren’t usually a big problem this time of year.

But this year is different.

This year, hurricane debris has been drying up in piles some 20 feet high, like so many matchsticks lining driveways and roads. Wooded areas are blanketed in dead limbs, leaves and other debris.

Plus, drought index numbers are already soaring. In fact, Lee County ranked the driest in the state Thursday, with surrounding counties closing in.

Everyone will feel the impact of this year’s fire season and everyone must be extra diligent in preventing fires, said officials with the Florida Division of Forestry.

Fires will spark more easily and spread faster. More firefighters will be needed from the onset and more fires might burn at once, tying up crews longer and reducing response times to additional fires.

“If we send four tractors and heaven knows how many units to Pine Island, we can’t make them available to Lehigh,” said Gerry LaCavera, spokesman for forestry’s Caloosahatchee district, which covers Lee, Hendry and Collier counties.

LaCavera said the district also worries about the dried debris.

“We’ve got areas of significant blow-down that, quite frankly, our equipment can’t get to,” LaCavera said. “Our


tractors are not big enough to move the debris. There’s no way to get fire lines in. There are interface areas where houses, trailers and other dwellings will be exposed to intense wildfires.

“We have huge areas where we’ll have intense fires if we get starts. And we’ll have more frequent fires.

“We’re not talking basic ground fires. As a rule of thumb, the height of the flame is two to three times the height of the fuel. So if you have a 6-foot pile of debris, you’ll have an 18-foot wall of flame coming at you.

“It sounds terrible, doesn’t it? I get depressed every time I think about it.”

The 40-acre fire sparked by a downed power line early this month in North Fort Myers heightened concerns among many fire officials.

“It’s early in the season to have had such a large fire,” said Bayshore Fire Rescue District Chief Chad Jorgensen. “This is not the time that you would typically be concerned. If you have a small brush fire, you wouldn’t expect it to go very far.”

The Nov. 2 blaze fanned out 40 acres, and hot spots continued to flare up, making firefighters tackle the same areas over again.

“We’re expecting a terrible brush fire season,” said Matlacha Pine Island Fire Control District Chief David Bradley.

“We’ve been out daily evaluating and making plans.”

On Pine Island, the fire district is trying to tell residents how to protect their homes and the importance of firebreaks between their houses and the woods or brush, Bradley said.

After Thanksgiving, Bradley is expecting help from the state in thinning potential fuel for fires by clearing out debris and conducting controlled burns.

The state is also launching its own education program. A brochure outlines the problem this region is facing, how people will be affected, a list of less-flammable bushes and trees and other ways to make a house more fire resistant. LaCavera said the district plans a massive media campaign beginning in December.

Herons Glen resident Pat Kirchhoff said she’s not worried about her home, even though a wildfire blazed through the trees across the highway last June.

“We live in a community where the entire community is maintained by the maintenance staff, so at all time debris does not accumulate here,” Kirchhoff said. “They have burnings near us where they are building a quarter mile from us. It’s not too far away because we can smell it.”

Still, Kirchhoff isn’t worried about her home because of the community maintenance plan.

LaCavera and other firefighters strongly encourage homeowners to make their houses Firewise houses. The National Wildland/Urban Interface Fire Program introduced the idea to help people better prepare for a wildfire.

The Firewise program recommends a “defensible space” of at least 30 feet that is free of more flammable plants, dead branches and leaves and doesn’t have “ladder fuel,” or vegetation that will help the fire climb into the tree tops.

Verandah is the first and only community in Lee County that has earned a Firewise Community designation. Utilities are underground; roads are wide enough for fire trucks to turn around; quarterly cleanup days will involve residents in cleaning out gutters and trimming back vegetation.

“People need to go back to basics. Make an updated evacuation plan. Realize if you have only one road, you need to think about an alternate plan, where to go and how to go,” LaCavera said.

“Think of what you need to do around the home to survive a fire if you have significant or not-so-significant damage. Even if you live in a stucco house, if you have cracks, embers can get in and start a fire.

“Same with roofs. If it’s lifted enough and if embers get in, there’s a problem. A lot of roofs lost a few tiles or shingles; a lot of soffits and fascia are off exposing wood. There’s a lot of things that we think, ‘Oh, I’ll get to it when I can’ that might be problematic.”

Forestry began planning for the fire season soon after Hurricane Charley struck Aug. 13.

“The week after Charley, I went to the district manager and said, ‘What on earth are we going to do?’ We started going out to the biggest blow-down areas to document what’s out there so we could come up with a game plan,” LaCavera said.

The Post Hurricane Mitigation and Suppression Plan maps out the 12 most worrisome places — such as Pine Island, parts of Sanibel, Estero, North Fort Myers.

“Any time a fire is reported in an area we’ve determined as high risk, we’re going to roll two tractor units to the fire and the heavy bulldozer. We’re going to use our helicopter as part of the initial attack. We’ve asked for funds for a contract helicopter, and we have a single-engine air tanker out of the Immokalee area,” LaCavera said.

“When we have fires that the equipment can’t get to but that are treatable, we’ll fly crews in with hand tools on the helicopter.”

It will be a plan that may have to carry this region into the next few fire seasons, LaCavera said.

“What we know is we’ll continue to have a fire problem until the debris disintegrates, and that’s three or four years down the road.”


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