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County burns now to prevent future wildfires

Crews start prescribed burns at Brooker Creek Preserve when rain and wind allow.


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 8, 2000

EAST LAKE -- In an effort to prevent raging wildfires at the Brooker Creek Preserve, Pinellas County officials are taking advantage of a rare break in the dry spell to fight fire with fire.

County crews set controlled burns, also called prescribed burns, at the 8,000-acre preserve last week. The burns help eliminate highly flammable palmettos and pine trees, undergrowth and dead vegetation that make the preserve one big tinderbox.

"What we are trying to do is burn while we can," said Craig Huegel, the county's environmental lands division administrator. "We have a lot of fuel-reduction issues at the preserve and we are trying to do as many acres as we can because we don't know how long this window of opportunity will last."

The higher-than-normal rainfall during Thanksgiving weekend added needed moisture to the preserve and made the controlled burns possible. Without the rainfall, decades of overgrowth and dry conditions would have made it too risky to have a prescribed burn.

During the Nov. 25-26 weekend, 1.8 inches of rain fell at Tampa International Airport, said Rick Davis, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Ruskin. The total is significant because the average rainfall for the entire month of November is 1.7 inches.

"Traditionally, November is our second-driest month," Davis said.

But the recent rainfall doesn't even come close to making up for the rest of the year. From January to November, 28.47 inches of rain have fallen at Tampa International Airport. That is well below the average for that time period: 41.77 inches.

The drought has increased the danger of uncontrollable brush fires at the preserve, officials say. In June, portions of North Pinellas had a drought index of 600, according to the state Division of Forestry, which publishes the index. The index ranges from 0, which represents wet, waterlogged conditions, to 800, which is as dry as a desert. Last Friday, the drought index for North Pinellas was 500 to 600.

"Although it's been about as dry as it has ever been historically, we aren't in any grave fire danger, yet," Huegel said. "But that could change in a few months."

That's when the dry season gets going and peaks in April, traditionally the driest month of the year. It's critical for the preserve to get more rain during the next 30 days, Huegel said.

"If we go 30 days without any rain, that would really set us in pretty dry shape," Huegel said. "We would be in trouble as far as being able to do any prescribed burns and heading into the driest months."

The first controlled burn last week set about 10 acres ablaze. Then, it was 40 to 50 acres north of the Keller well field and south of Trinity Boulevard, Huegel said. That same burn was continued last Friday. The plan is to have as many controlled burns as possible.

"Right now, we know we can burn safely, so we will do it as much as we can," Huegel said. "When you have 8,000 acres, it takes a long time to reduce the fuel when you have to do it in 40- or 50-acre blocks."

Because many factors have to be considered for a controlled burn, it's difficult to set one up. First, there has to be enough moisture on the ground to help prevent the prescribed burn from getting out of control. The firefighters also need the wind to blow away from residential neighborhoods to keep the smoke and ash from bothering residents.

And it can't be overcast because "we would not have been able to get the smoke up into the air, and it would have just hung in the area," Huegel said.

As odd as it may sound, regular wildfires are beneficial to the state's lush ecosystem.

"Florida is composed of highly flammable trees and shrubs, and when they don't burn regularly, the amount of flammable material builds up," Huegel said. "Right now, we are very serious with the fuel-reduction side of our program."

Brush fires, which are as natural in the forest as the trees themselves, help preserve wildlife diversity by allowing various plant and animal species to thrive while helping to get rid of non-native plants.

Brush fires also help the state's ecosystem by stemming the growth of highly flammable palmettos and pine trees. But the public has been quick to report and snuff out brush fires, thanks to the success of national fire prevention programs, symbolized by Smokey Bear.

That has helped cause a buildup of natural fuel in woods, just waiting for a spark to ignite an inferno that could devour thousands of acres and take days to battle.

"We have really gone through a 50-year period where fire has been suppressed and that is very unnatural for Florida," Huegel said.

About 3,600 wildfires have burned since Jan. 1, scorching more than 88,000 acres in Florida. But that pales by comparison with what happened in 1998, when the numbers were staggering. More than a half-million acres were blackened by wildfires that forced 130,000 people to evacuate their homes and damaged or destroyed 300 homes and 33 businesses.

If it were up to Huegel, he would have the county burn 1,000 acres a year in prescribed fires at the preserve. But for now, he'll take whatever he can get.

"We are taking advantage of the weather we have now," he said. "When we do have a wildfire and the fuels aren't so high, it's a lot easier for us to get that fire under control before it affects our neighbors."

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