For many northwest Florida residents, it’s time to get out and clean up the yard and burn the debris. The Florida Forest Service is out with its annual reminder, that this is the driest time of the year -- and the most wildfire-friendly.
So far this year, Florida Forest Service reports nearly 2,400 wildfires statewide, burning more than 74,000 acres. In the Blackwater District -- Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa Counties -- 100 blazes have scorched 636 acres as of Friday.
“Florida has a 12-month wildfire season, but into October-November you start to get that seasonal dryness where we see a rapid increase in the number of wildfires,” said Joe Zwierzchowski at the Forest Service’s Blackwater District.
Measures to keep yard debris fires under control are basically common sense. Zwierzchowski says in this case, they’re in the form of rules and regulations, starting with location-location-location.
“The pile has to be less than eight feet in diameter, 25 feet away from any woods, bushes and any combustible structure,” said Zwierzchowski. “It also needs to be 25 feet away from your house; 50 feet from paved public roads, and 150 feet from your neighbor’s house or another occupied building.”
Also, don’t turn your back on a fire – whether it’s yard debris, a campfire or a barbecue grill -- keep a garden hose and shovel handy just in case. And when it’s finished, put the remnants in a non-combustible “burn barrel.”
While yard debris is okay, there’s also a list of what not to burn – such as treated lumber, paper products and household garbage – which can produce toxic smoke.
Blackwater and the other districts in Florida do not issue burn bans – that’s the choice of the 67 individual counties. Burn hours are eight a-m until one hour before sunset every day. And if a fire gets out of control, then Blackwater and local fire departments are the next step. Zwierzchowski says that could torch your wallet.
“If and when we have to respond, whoever’s found at fault for the fire can face the suppression costs,” Zwierzchowski said. “The bulldozers we use don’t come cheap. The manpower does not come cheap. If it gets really bad and we have to bring out helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft, those costs can run into the $10,000-$20,000 range.”
It’s been a busy year for firefighters at FFS, and not just at home. About 200 personnel from the Florida Forest Service have gone west to help fight blazes in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana – whose terrain presented a challenge.
“It’s hard to practice for mountainous terrain in the flatlands of Florida,” said Zwierzchowski. “But we pride ourselves on being extremely capable and physically fit. It takes a lot of adjusting, but our guys typically do a good job.”
Families are encouraged to develop a wildfire escape plan, including two evacuation routes and a list of items to take with you. More information can be found at www.floridaforestservice.com.