Dry conditions have officials concerned of increased brush fire risk

Mar 4, 2009

Naples Daily News–March 4, 2009


NAPLES – Golden Gate Estates residents who thought the 800-acre inferno that destroyed three homes and threatened hundreds more last summer was bad, well, hold on to your britches.

“We could have fires multiple times the size of the one we had last year,” Michael Weston, a senior forester for the Florida Division of Forestry, said of this year’s fire season. “That fire last year started mid- to late-afternoon. Had it started earlier, it could have grown larger.”

Collier County, like the rest of Southwest Florida, is “bone dry” right now, Weston said.

Already this year firefighters in Southwest Florida have battled a 475-acre blaze in Hendry County, a 170-acre fire in eastern Collier County, and several 20-acre to 50-acre blazes.

To help residents prepare their homes for the coming months, Collier Commissioner Jim Coletta and the Golden Gate Estates Area Civic Association are hosting an emergency wildfire workshop at 7 p.m. today. The workshop, which is scheduled to run two hours, is being held at the University of Florida Extension Center, 14700 Immokalee Road.

“The fact of the matter is, in a woodlands community like Golden Gate Estates and a lot of rural eastern Collier County, wildfires are the biggest danger that we face; much bigger than a hurricane,” said Tim Nance, former civic association president.

Residents who attend the workshop will have the opportunity to interact with fire professionals.

The focus of the workshop will be to work with residents on what they can do now to protect their homes, Weston said. Long-range wildfire management plans may also be discussed.

As recently as December, fire officials said they were expecting a more normal fire season in 2009. However, the lack of rain since November coupled with several freezes has dried out vegetation, leaving homeowners in a perilous situation.

As of Tuesday, the mean soil moisture in Collier County was 680 on the Keetch-Byram Drought Index, which measures soil moisture on a zero to 800 scale with higher numbers representing increased fire risk. Nearly 40 percent of the county is in the top, 700 to 800, range.

Mean soil moisture in Lee County is 586 on the index.

“We’re about two to three months ahead of where we normally are this time of year,” Golden Gate fire spokesman Victor Hill said.

This is not the time for carelessness or complacency, authorities said.

“Right now all it’s going to take is a spark to get something really big started,” Weston said.

Fire officials ask residents to maintain a 30-foot buffer between their home and dense vegetation, keep trees and bushes pruned, regularly mow and rake their lawn, and keep the grass as green as possible.

“We need people’s yards to be as green as possible so if a fire comes through, it’s not going to keep burning,” Weston said. “A green lawn is going to be your best friend during a wildfire.”