Florida, USA — Although it’s been more than five years since the lastwildfire threatened Woodland Estates, many of the neighborhood’s 63 residentsremember it.
The community, a private neighborhood just to the northwest of the North Portcity limits, was less than a half a mile away from flames that torched more than4,500 acres of the Carlton Reserve and crossed into the city’s northern border.
“We all stood on the bridge out there and watched the flames,”resident Dianne Latona said. “Everybody was concerned.”
Driven by that memory and the active wildfire season last spring, WoodlandEstates residents wanted to do something to reduce the threat of wildfireengulfing their rural community.
Last week, Woodland Estates became the first neighborhood in Charlotte, DeSoto,Hardee, Manatee and Sarasota counties to become a Firewise Community.
The national program encourages residents in wildfire-prone areas to reducefire-feeding vegetation and build buffers that can help slow down a fire’sadvance.
Several other communities in the region are moving in that direction — a trendthat could make a difference for the increasing number of neighborhoods thathave been chiseled into prime wildfire breeding grounds.
“Just like out in California, they’re tired of the city,” said PatrickMahoney, wildfire mitigation specialist with the state Division of Forestry.”What you have happening is that people will move out to North Port Estatesor Woodland Estates, to those types of places, to get out of the city.”
But those types of neighborhoods — surrounded by scrubland or slash pineforests — are in wildfire habitat. The problem is growing in Florida, wheregrowth is increasingly pushing into areas where wildfires are a seasonal part ofthe natural cycle.
More than 300 wildfires burned more than 4,000 acres in Southwest Florida thisyear, making 2006 one of the more active fire seasons the region has seen inrecent years. Statewide, 4,689 wildfires burned 221,192 acres since January,according to the state Division of Forestry.
The Firewise program was launched in the early 1990s by the National WildfireCoordinating Group. It incorporates a variety of safety measures, from removingpine needles from gutters and dead brush from around homes to building firebreaks around entire neighborhoods.
The program targets communities like Woodland Estates, which is literally tuckedbeneath a dense forest of cabbage palms and pine and oak trees. The goal is toreach a balance between fire protection and maintaining wildlife and a healthytree canopy.
A Girl Scout camp in Manatee County and a community in Charlotte County alsohave begun working on the program, which is initiated by property owners.
“This is the perfect example of a neighborhood coming together,” saidRandy Coldiron, a firefighter with the Division of Forestry.
Coldiron spent most of this week on a hydraulic tractor, creating windingwalking paths under the dense saw palmettos and cabbage palms in WoodlandEstates. The 10-foot-wide paths function as fire breaks and run around theperimeter of homes and along fence lines.
Firefighters can use the paths to stretch hoses and work a fire, and the breaksalso reduce the height of flames, making them easier to extinguish.
All of the work is paid for by the Division of Forestry. Sarasota County firemitigation specialist Joe Padgett said fire officials will return in eightmonths for maintenance.
“We’re going to continue to work with these folks,” Padgett said.”This is something that I think is very important to the community.Everybody’s working together.”