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Residents urged to be prepared for wildfire season

April 14, 2010

Emergency management officials are reminding residents to be ready for wildfires this year, despite the recent, wetter than normal winter season.

Wildfire Awareness Week runs April 11-17.

"Due to the recent El Nino phenomenon, Florida experienced wetter than normal winter months, which will help to diminish the threat of a severe wildfire season," David Halstead, interim director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said in a prepared statement.

Article Photos

Cape Coral firefighters Sascha Roubal, standing, and Greg Bowden stand next to one of the city’s fire danger signs. This week, April 11-17, is Wildfire Awareness Week, and officials are pushing residents to be prepared for wildfire season.

"However, Florida is a wildfire-prone state, with much of the native ecosystems dependent on natural wildfires," he continued. "Therefore, residents should take the necessary precautions to protect lives and property as we near the height of wildfire season."

According to Operations Division Chief Tom Tomich of the Cape Coral Fire Department, the city has had an unusual number of wet cold fronts so far.

Wildfire season runs from March through June with the driest peak in May.

Fact Box

Facts on wildfires

- March, April, May and June are the most active months of Florida's wildfire season.

- 1998 was the most devastating wildfire season in Florida's history with 50,000 acres burned in nearly 2,300 separate wildfires. The season represented a 1700 percent increase from Florida's typical five-year average and costs to federal, state and local governments were estimated at more than $160 million.

- From January through October 2009, more than 2,800 wildfires across Florida burned more than 136,000 acres of state and federal lands. Though this may seem like a lot of fires, 2009 was a fairly inactive wildfire season compared to recent years.

- Since Jan. 1, 852 wildfires have burned on 13,407 acres in Florida. Most of there fires were caused by human carelessness.

Source: Florida Division of Emergency Management

Wildfire safety tips

- Replace highly flammable landscape material with plant materials with higher water content.

- Create a "defensible space" clear of brush 30 feet around a home. Prune tree limbs to a height of 15 feet near structures. Thin out trees and shrubs so there is 10 feet to 15 feet between the tree crowns.

- Keep a home's roof and gutters free of leaves and pine needles.

- Check lawnmowers and farm equipment for properly working spark arresters.

- Make sure fire vehicles can get to a home. Clearly mark all driveway entrances and display name and address for firefighters.

- Review and practice a fire escape plan. Plan several escape routes away from a home by vehicle and by foot.

- Post fire emergency telephone numbers.

- Report hazardous conditions that could cause a wildfire.

- Talk to neighbors about wildfire safety. Plan how the neighborhood could work together after a wildfire. Make a list of neighbors' skills, like medical. Consider how to help neighbors who have special needs. Make plans to take care of children who may be on their own if their parents cannot get home.

- Teach children about fire safety. Keep matches out of their reach.

- Properly extinguish fires when cooking outdoors and never leave fires unattended.

Source: American Red Cross and Firew

"This year we've had almost every cold front come through with rain and they've come through in rapid order," he said. "This is not real typical of a winter in Florida. We usually have pretty dry dew points at this time of the year."

Tomich explained Tuesday that on a scale of 0 to 800, with 800 indicating the driest conditions possible, the city is usually in the range of 500 to 600 during this time of the year. Currently, the Cape is sitting in the 200 range.

Because of the wetter conditions, the department has not responded to as many wildfires or grass fires as it normally does in "actual forested" areas, he said. No homes have been damaged by wildfire activity so far this season.

"We really have not had them," Tomich said. "I would say the number is under a dozen for the whole season."

Fire units also respond when a power line falls. During windy weather, the wires can drop from electric poles and spark fires. Tomich said firefighters have responded to about a half dozen of those types of fires as of Tuesday.

"It causes a brush fire to start below the pole," he said.

According to Tomich, the wetter than normal conditions do not mean that residents should not prepare for wildfire season. He said the onset of the summer rain pattern toward the end of season tends to bring lightning and thunderstorms, which can spark fires.

The city also has dry vegetation that was frost burned during the prolonged periods of cold weather and several frosts, which can serve as fuel for fires.

"There is a potential for a very decent fuel load out in the wild land right now," Tomich said.

To prepare for wildfire season, residents are urged to have at least 30 feet of clear ground surrounding their home. Since pine needles burn very easily, a home's roof and gutters should be cleared of them. Trees and bushes should be trimmed to keep a ground fire from jumping and possibly reaching a home.

"It creates a ladder type of effect where the fire starts on the ground," he said. "Trim hedges and vegetation so it doesn't give flames an opportunity to jump from the shrub onto the structure."

Also, keep roads to a home clear of debris so fire units have easy access.

"Notify the 911 system if they see smoke near an area where there's dense vegetation," Tomich added. "Early notification is the key."



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