Local officials warn of fire danger during dry spell
By CONNER HOLMES
Drought conditions have Cape firefighters taking to the streets today–warning residents of the potential of brush fires a month earlier than usual.
Having already responded to 12 brush fires locally within the past few months, firefighters are hoping safety information will spark a civic and personal responsibility in residents that will keep them from accidentally sparking a fast-spreading wildfire.
“Our drought index numbers are much higher than they were this time last year,” said Tom Tomich, the Cape Coral Fire Department’s chief of operations. “Our ground is starting to dry out to the 6- and 7-inch depths.”
The South Florida Water Management District says rainfall is down 6.65 inches from the historical average, only partway through this year’s dry season. In February, south Florida saw an historically low average of .41 inches of rain.
A 2,400-acre fire that spread across north Cape Coral in 2007 began under similarly dry conditions, Tomich said.
“Certainly this year is going to be challenging, we understand that,” he said.
The Cape Coral Fire Department faces potential challenges with budget shortfalls and resource management due to the economy, a problem other agencies who typically aid in major brush fires face as well, Tomich said.
Atop the possibility of a brush fire onslaught, the fire department responds to an average of 50 to 60 calls daily.
“That stuff doesn’t stop just because there’s a fire going on in the north end,” he said. “As time goes on we’re going to be doing more with less, and it’s going to be a real concern.”
Residents can help tremendously by doing their part, with simple steps such as avoiding campfires at dry times of year, properly irrigating their lawn and reducing dead vegetation around their homes, and not throwing cigarette butts from car windows, the fire department warned in a release earlier this week.
“Even something as seemingly innocuous as a cigarette butt… can cause a wildfire and burn homes down,” Tomich said. “It’s just dangerously dry.”
Also, residents should alert authorities when they see suspicious behavior or something that might cause a fire so they can get to it before a fire grows out of control, he said.
Senior Forester Michael Weston with the Caloosahatchee District Department of Forestry said the department has responded to 29 fires in Lee County this year, totalling 63.9 acres.
Lehigh Acres has been a primary concern given the intensely dry conditions, while in Cape Coral forested areas to the north, such as those off of Burnt Store Road and near Del Prado Boulevard and Kismet Parkway, are prone to brush fires, Weston said.
Usually the heart of dry season is centered around April and May, but this year conditioned have worsened much more quickly, he said.
“This year, because of the freezes we’ve had, and because of the real lack of winter rains we’ve had, we’re at least a month ahead of schedule,” Weston said. “As we get further and further into the dry season, the fires are going to pick up speed and burn a lot quicker. If we start getting a fire that really moves, one to two miles per hour is pretty quick for us down here. We’ve had fires that have moved over a day’s period a couple miles, when it wasn’t quite expected to do that.”
Dry conditions will continue for the next three months, but programs such as city mowing of vacant lots is extremely helpful against fires, Weston said.
“That’s really why the north Cape doesn’t have the same issues as Lehigh has,” he said. “Cape Coral fire rescue can very easily knock down a grass fire, and they don’t necessarily need us to come out.”
Lee County Commissioners have agreed to fund a mitigation project in Lehigh Acres to help reduce the risk of fires, Weston said. Though prescribed burns will likely slow to a halt for the time being, conditions may cause pine trees to burn.
In Lee County, 2008 was a relatively inactive brush fire season, with about 59 fires totalling 600 acres–many fewer than the 124 fires in 2007, burning upwards of 5,849 acres.
Awareness played a large part in the reduced numbers last year, Weston said.
“People were very, very conscious of the dangers that were out there,” he said. “If a community acts together… they’re able to help knock down the risk of fire being an issue.”
Planning beforehand is key, Weston said.
Having 30 feet of defensible, well-landscaped space around a home, having water on hand for situations involving flammable materials and cleaning dead vegetation from gutters and rooftops are some of the steps residents should take to keep their families safe, he said.
“When a wildfire’s running towards your house, the planning stage is really over,” he said. “Also it’s better to do it now versus when it’s 95 degrees out and you have to drink gallons and gallons of water.”
Additional wildfire safety tips are available from the Lee County American Red Cross by visiting arclcc.org.