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Arson Case Sets Stage for Control Burn

By Staff | Feb 24, 2012

Aerial view of a former control burn that took place in the J.N. "Ding" Darling Wildlife Refuge.

During the very week that rangers with the U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Refuge prepared to inform the public of a series of control burns set for Sanibel (an exercised conducted to diminish the likelihood of more devastating wildfires), a suspected arsonist set fire to a parcel of land located off Island Inn Road which is jointly owned by The City of Sanibel and the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation.

On the afternoon of February 20, Firefighters from the Sanibel Fire District arrived fast enough to quash the fire which scorched nothing more than native vegetation on a little over an acre of land, but Lt. Chris Davidson says the situation could have been worse. “Our humidity has been low and conditions are ripe as this is brushfire season… had it been windier or had we not got the call faster, the fire could have been worse,” says Lt. Davidson.

Credit for the speedy response can be attributed to the quick reporting by a couple who was bicycling in the area just as the fire started. Robert Sperte and his wife, who live on West Gulf Drive, said they were biking along Island Inn Road when they observed “a tall, thin, kid with long hair, wearing a white T-shirt” in the proximity where the fire was started.” Robert Sperte said the suspect fled from the scene just as he heard the first sounds of brush cracking in a fire that threatened to spread as Sperte quickly phoned police.

Even as firefighters spent the afternoon outing the fire, Sanibel Police Chief Bill Tomlinson says patrol units conducted a sweep of the area looking for someone who fit the general description. As of press time, no arrests have been made. Chief Tomlinson says this is the third occasion in recent years that this area of land had experienced a fire situation. While one event was attributed to an accident with a car’s catalytic converter system, Chief Tomlinson says there has been one other time when a suspicious fire was set on the same property. While officers will reportedly maintain vigilance to anyone acting suspiciously while seeking out culprit behind this fire, Tomlinson also noted “it is ironic” that this fire occurred so close to the control burns which are scheduled to occur soon.

To that point, “Ding” Darling Supervisory Refuge Ranger Toni Westland says controlled burns are currently being scheduled within the refuge, and could commence at any time in the coming weeks. These “prescribed fires” or “controlled burns” have been conducted before and Westland says they help reduce the amount of dried vegetation which would otherwise serve as fuel in a less-controlled fire situation.

Such fires are also said to pose benefits to both plants and wildlife, helping to spur growth of plants and grasses, which as Westland says, “is the kind of stuff gopher tortoises love.”

Actual dates for the burn cannot be determined at this time. Westland says rangers consider the range of environmental conditions – temperature, relative humidity, recent rainfall, wind speed and direction, soil moisture, fuel conditions, etc.

The burns will occur on those days when Rangers determine greatest opportunity to mitigate against impacts of smoke or spreading of fire through wind conditions. Westland says landowners adjacent to burn areas as well as local fire officials will be notified prior to igniting the fire.

During controlled burns, portions of the refuge may be closed to public access. Westland advises all to adhere to signs indicating road closures or instructions about closed areas that will be provided by refuge and fire personnel.

Questions about the controlled burns can be answered by phoning refuge offices at (239) 472-1100 x237.