Life in the danger zone

Officials hope to thwart 2001 repeat

When Charlotte County Fire Chief Dennis DiDio thinks of brush fires, he thinks of the plumes of smoke that rose above Charlotte County and North Port on April 18, 2001.

Six individual brush fires became one, eventually burning more than 2,400 acres in Charlotte alone. DiDio still remembers listening helplessly to his firefighters calling for more equipment, since the department's resources were already committed to fight the blaze that engulfed properties bordered by Edgewater Drive, Wintergarden Avenue, and Collingswood and Flamingo boulevards.

"All I could say is, 'Do the best you can,'" DiDio recalled. According to Sun reports at the time, seven homes were lost and the county had to order an evacuation of the area.

At the same time, North Port was facing two days of fires when an intended 600-acre prescribed burn at the Carlton Reserve raced out of control. Over a two-day period, more than 6,000 acres were scorched.

Locally, DiDio said, the brush fire season starts this month and lasts until August, well into the summer rainy season. Already this year, Charlotte County firefighters put out a 50- to 60-acre blaze near the Scarecrow Farms subdivision, south of Punta Gorda. Since October, North Port firefighters have seen 175 to 200 acres burned by brush fires.

"This season has been sporadic," DiDio said Friday, but he also said the fire conditions around the state are showing signs of drying out. "It's still moist."

The Florida Division of Forestry gauges the threat of brush fires on the zero to 800 scale of the Keetch-Byram Drought Index. Friday, the index showed Charlotte and Sarasota counties in the 400 to 500 range, which indicates the midpoint between extremely wet and extremely dry conditions.

Under normal conditions, DiDio said he normally sends two firetrucks out to face a brush fire, but as conditions dry out, he'll boost that number, sending three trucks to fight a blaze. DiDio, like the chiefs from other local fire departments, said they depend on the Division of Forestry and its interlocal agreements during the brush fire season.


Playing it safe

Mike Bonakoske, fire chief for the Englewood Area Fire Control District, can recall the mid-1990s blaze that closed South River Road, swallowed acreage in Taylor Ranch and the Myakka State Forest, and engulfed several homes adjacent to Englewood Farm Acres.

Since the Division of Forestry started control burns in Myakka State Park, Bonakoske said, the threat from a River Road fire has been greatly diminished.

"The big thing is managing the land," he said.

Bonakoske is also a big believer in the state's "Firewise" tips to homeowners.

Charlotte, North Port and Englewood firefighters agreed that the area faces the same danger -- where homes are interspersed among large stretches of undeveloped properties.

"You give 30 feet and I'll have a good chance to save your home," Bonakoske said, citing the Firewise tip to clear a 30-foot defensible perimeter around homes.

Other Firewise tips for home and other property owners are:

* Keep roofs and gutters clean, removing pine needles, leaves and other organic materials.

* Eliminate all combustible materials, such as wood, propane tanks, boats, automobiles and other vehicles from under or near homes or other structures.

* Trim trees, vines and other vegetation away from homes and other structures.

* Use gravel for mulch or keep combustible mulch moist.

* Keep highly flammable plants, such as palmettos, away from houses or other structures.

When facing the immediate threat from a brush fire, evacuate when requested and follow any directions by firefighters, police or other emergency personnel.

If and when time allows, the experts say to:

* Close all doors and windows.

* Close heavy drapes, blinds or hurricane shutters.

* Remove lightweight curtains.

* Move flammable furniture away from windows and glass doors. DiDio warned that the heat radiated from an intense fire can set curtains and other materials on fire, even if a window or glass door is shut.

* Back automobiles into garages and disconnect any automatic garage openers.

* Turn off gas and fuel supplies at their connections.

* Connect a garden hose with a nozzle to an outside tap.

You can e-mail Steve Reilly at reilly@sun-herald.com


By STEVE REILLY

Staff Writer