As we head towards spring and the dry season in northwest Florida, controlled burns are being conducted in certain areas to lessen the chance of wildfires. Officials say that for now, local residents need to leave the burning to the pros.
One controlled burn was set to begin Tuesday in the Jones Swamp Preserve, by the Escambia County Natural Resources Conservation Division. But high winds forced a postponement. Jones Swamp was the scene of a large-scale wildfire in 2011, which covered much of Escambia County in thick smoke and put several homes in danger.
Joe Zwierzchowski at the Florida Division of Forestry’s Blackwater Office says controlled burns actually lessen the possibility of wildfires.
“One of the benefits of prescribed burnings is the reduction of hazardous fuels,” says Zwierzchowski, referring to dead vegetation lying at the floor of a woodland. “If trained individuals under the right circumstances can get out there and put some fire on the ground, it will reduce future risks, as well as improve habitat and promote new growth.”
Figures from the Forest Service show just over two thousand wildfires statewide in 2013, which burned almost 38,000 acres. So far this year, there have been 26 blazes scorching 36 acres across Florida. Zwierzchowski says when planning a controlled burn, several factors are considered such as the winds and the amount of foliage on the ground.
As with all burns – controlled and otherwise – there’s the chance that smoke will drift across highways in the area. That creates a special hazard for motorists. Zwierzchowski advises that heavy smoke should be treated as you would fog: slow down, and turn on your low-beam headlights. If it’s too heavy, simply pull to the side of the road until it lightens up.
Meanwhile, a pair of wildfires burned through about a dozen acres at midday Monday near Walnut Hill. One was on Garrett Road just off Pine Forest Road, blackening ten acres. The other burned two acres off Highway 97A in Enon. Firefighters from Escambia Fire Rescue, and the Division of Forestry put them out.
The Blackwater District – made up of Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa Counties -- is not currently under a burn ban. Those are issued by the counties and not the state. Blackwater’s Joe Zwierzchowski says for now, it’s the wind that should keep residents from burning.
“A lot of people think ‘well, this wind will come in and put the smoke out of here, and it will be gone before you know it,’” says Zwierzchowski. “That wind also stokes your fire a little bit and can blow embers outside your yard into the untamed wilderness out there beyond the privacy fence. And the next thing you know, our guys have to come out there and deal with it.”
And you don’t want that. If Division of Forestry personnel and equipment are used in extinguishing a fire that’s traced back to you, a citation or bill for services could be in offing. For more information on prescribed burns, call the Escambia County Community and Environment Department at 595-3496, or online at www.floridaforestservice.com.