Caution urged as Florida's brush fire season begins

Sunday, December 1, 2002


As Florida's brush fire season begins Dec. 1, wet weather is expected to spark few big blazes. However, predicting the season is a lot like Forrest Gump's metaphorical box of chocolates you never know what you're gonna get.

Gerry LaCavera, wildfire mitigation specialist with the Florida Division of Forestry in Fort Myers, said a wet winter is expected this year. Soggy weather should reduce the chance of fires. However, winter freezes could sweep Lee and Collier counties, making vegetation dry and brittle the perfect fuel for fire.

North Naples firefighter Erin Espineta keeps a brush fire under control next to a nature trail adjacent to homes in Autumn Woods on the 6600 block of Nature Preserve Court on Friday in Naples. North Naples Fire and Rescue responded to the call at 2:19 p.m. using a brush truck to extinguish the fire. Michael Hirsch, 14, who lives next to the burned area, was walking his dog along the trail when he heard fireworks. "I heard them say, 'Oh, my gosh,' and I heard them running," said Hirsch. Chief Mark Batten said the dry winds have caused the area to become prone to fires. Gary Coronado/Staff

"We could end up to having a very dry winter ... and it could be a hell of a fire season, or it could be as wet as they're predicting," LaCavera said. "Just like hurricanes, you never know for sure."

Brush fire season starts Sunday and ends when hurricane season blows in during June. March, April and May are the meatiest brush fire months. Lightning and human error are the most common causes of fires.

So far, LaCavera said, the potential for fire is low compared with past years. Through October of this year, 161 brush fires burned in Lee, Collier and Hendry counties. The fires ate 2,538 acres.

By comparison, LaCavera said, there are usually 400 fires by this time of year, charring 17,000 to 18,000 acres.

Last year's season was also slow, LaCavera said.

The cause of the predicted wet, winter weather is El Nino, said Kim Brabander, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Miami. He said El Nino, which creates abnormally warm water in the Pacific, equals more winter rain than normal. Predictions call for December through April to be rainier than usual. Where there are normally about 10 inches of rain per month, he expects 15.

Although wetter woods should cut down on brush fires, Brabander also said there is potential for freezes from December to February.

"There could be a couple very strong cold fronts," he said. "It's very hard to say when and where they are supposed to hit."

Although the season is predicted to be slow, Bonita Fire District spokeswoman Debbi Redfield said residents in wooded areas should still take precautions.

One hot spot for brush fires is San Carlos Estates in northern Bonita Springs. The neighborhood with large lots where homes are surrounded by trees was the scene of last season's only big brush fire.

"Now is the time people need to look around their homes ... instead of waiting for a crisis," she said.

The Bonita Fire District offers the following tips for residents to make their homes brush-fire safe:

Keep trees and shrubs at least 30 feet from your home. Remove dead limbs and clear brush, leaves or pine needles from your roof and gutter.
Store firewood and lumber away from your home.
Even the smallest spark, such as a discarded cigarette, can ignite dry vegetation. Carelessness is one of the major causes of brush fires.
Inspect nearby power lines to make sure tree limbs are cleared to a safe distance.
Follow all local burning regulations. In Bonita Springs, burn permits are regulated through the Division of Forestry at 694-5579.
Keep flammable liquids in unbreakable containers in a safe location.
Call 9-1-1 immediately at the first sign of smoke or fire.
If authorities request you evacuate your home, do so. If you evacuate, take your pets.
If you have pets housed outside, be sure they are not confined and have a way to escape the fire if you can't take them with you.
Have an evacuation plan in place and ensure that everyone in your family is aware of the plan.
Keep important papers in a fireproof box in your home or in a safe deposit box.
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