Wildfire leaves burning questions

Wildfire leaves burning questions

31 March 2013

published by www.ocala.com

USA — SALT SPRINGS — Along sandy Northeast 305th Avenue, it looks like a fire bomb exploded, charring the landscape and destroying homes in its path.

It’s been nearly a month since a wildfire roared through Sportsman’s Haven 1, a rural subdivision in the far reaches of the scenic Ocala National Forest.

While 10 homes and a dozen or so outbuildings were destroyed in the blaze, dubbed the Hopkins Prairie fire, many other buildings somehow survived the inferno.

Diligent federal, state and local firefighters — along with the actions of several quick-thinking residents with water hoses — saved 100 homes after the fire broke out on March 2.

Notwithstanding those brave efforts, many onlookers still wonder how so many homes in the fire’s direct path suffered little or no damage during the wind-driven fire storm. Was it just coincidence that some buildings were spared, or was there a reason?

Florida Forest Service officials, with the help of Marion County Fire Rescue, led a tour of the devastation last week to share insight as to why some buildings survived while others did not.

Fire officials say there are good reasons why some homes survived along the fire’s path, explaining properties with “defensible” space — at least 30 feet of cleared landscape between the forest and their homes — fared much better than the ones that did not.

The term “defensible space” is taught as part of the Florida Forest Service’s “Firewise” program — www.firewise.org — which gives tips on fireproofing landscapes and homes.

At the time the fire started about a mile west of the Sportsman’s Haven 1, a storm front moved through Marion County. Ahead of the front, a sustained wind pushed southeast at 20 mph, with gusts near 40 mph.

As the front moved through, it pushed the fire rapidly through the forest’s dense underbrush and into trees, creating flame lengths in excess of 60 feet.

Once the fire ignited, the wind blew embers far ahead of the blaze. Those embers ignited other brush and trees, as well as other flammable materials, such as rooftops and wooden decks. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

Along Northeast 305th Avenue, Walter Lunsford said he cleared the underbrush from immediately around his home many years ago. Few trees are now near his home and he keeps his grass mowed to prevent wildfires from getting too close.

Unfortunately, his shed was near the forest line. It ignited and burned to the ground, destroying a lifetime collection of tools.

“I grew up here, and I know what wildfire can do,” Lunsford said after taking a break cleaning the area where his shed was once located.

About 100 yards away, Lunsford pointed to a lot where his sister’s house once stood. All that’s left is a pile of charred cement blocks, broken glass and remnants of yard debris.

“She didn’t fare too well,” he said.

His sister, Marie Peacock, lost everything but a few changes of clothes. She is living with another brother a few blocks from her home.

Peacock blamed her neighboring overgrown lots for her home catching fire. Once those lots — which she said included rows of highly flammable bamboo chutes — began burning, the intense heat and falling embers burned her home to the ground.

“My advice is to ask your neighbors to keep up (maintain) their lots or ask if you can do it” if necessary, she said during the tour of the damage.

Ludie Bond, Florida Forest Service spokeswoman, said the wildfire threat in Florida lasts all year. However, the worst period is the dry months, from December through Memorial Day. The spring fire season runs from March through May, she noted.

Though it may seem like a fast start in terms of wildfires this calendar year, Bond said there actually has been 26 percent fewer fires.

From Jan. 1 to March 27 last year, there were 133 wildfires in the Waccasassa District, which includes Marion. In the same period this year, there have been 98, she noted. During the same time period statewide, the numbers are down 15 percent — from 1,106 to 943.

Marion Fire Rescue spokeswoman Jessica Greene reminded residents that there is a voluntary burn ban in effect in Marion County. That means residents are urged not to burn yard debris until summer rains begin around Memorial Day. Escaped yard debris fires is the No. 1 cause of wildfires in Florida, officials said.

Greene said county fire officials responded to 379 outside fires in 2012, most of which were the result of escaped yard debris “burn piles” or camp fires.

“This means that by choosing not to burn outdoors during dry periods, and by heeding MCFR’s burn regulations, residents have the power to protect both themselves and their neighbors,” Greene noted in a release.

Greene said the agency also issued 404 citations in 2012 to residents for unauthorized burns and/or violating burn regulations.

Bond urges residents, especially those living in forest areas, to also create an emergency plan, just like one many Florida residents create during hurricane season. Greene said most people routinely prepare for hurricanes in May. She said it’s time residents prepare for wildfire season, creating emergency kits and establishing an evacuation route.

Officials recommend that people have a tote with key personal items, such as special documents, insurance papers and irreplaceable photographs. The tote can be thrown into a car quickly in case the person has to evacuate.

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