This is Wildfire Awareness Week in Florida, during a time of the year when firefighters are working to minimize risk to homes, businesses and residents. So far this year, more than 500 wildfires have blackened about 9,000 acres statewide.
Wildfires generally occur in the spring and early summer months due to a lack of rainfall, low humidity and strong winds combined with increased yard burns. There have been 61 blazes in the Blackwater District of the Florida Forest Service – which covers Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa Counties – that have burned just over 3,200 acres.
Joe Zwierzchowski at Blackwater says area firefighters have been busy the past few weeks – including a rather large blow-up last week.
“We had 4-5 fires going (last) Thursday afternoon, and it’s not dry yet” said Zwierzchowski. “We had one situation where we couldn’t even put our bulldozers on the ground because of the standing water. So we had to back up and go to ‘Plan-B’ and burn out the area using the existing roads.”
And therein lies the problem. Along with the wet grounds, the rainfall of late – that you think would help the wildfire problem -- actually compounds it.
“We’re going to get a lot of new spring growth which is really just, quite literally, fuel for the next wildfire,” said Zwierzchowski. “Once we go maybe six, eight, 10 days without rain, all that stuff starts to dry out and we can start seeing fires again.”
This year’s awareness week spotlights the wildfires that raged across Florida in 1998, burning more than 500,000 acres and damaging or destroying 337 homes and structures. Floridians are urged to be extremely careful with outdoor fires, with a number of tips for safe burning. Zwierzchowski says their message is that it’s up to all Floridians to prevent wildfires.
Tips include obtaining a burning authorization from the Florida Forest Service for piles larger than eight feet in diameter – or keep the size under that. The best rule of thumb, says Zwierzchowski, is burn the yard debris in a container.
Also, keep the burning at least 150 feet away from other homes, and 50 feet away from paved roads. Also, never leave a fire unattended; make sure it is completely out before leaving, and check the weather before firing up.
Floridians are also urged to report suspicious activity to the Arson Alert Hotline at 1-800-342-5869. Callers may remain anonymous, and information about an arson-caused fire could be worth up to a five thousand dollar reward.