Fire can be fierce or friendly, destructive when unfettered, helpful when controlled.
And that is what the Florida Forest Service (FFS) is all about - controlling one of nature’s most powerful elements.
This is Fire Prevention Week and firefighters are working extra hard to make sure people respect this amazing force and learn how to take precautions against its destructive side.
According to FFS Mitigation Specialist Samantha Quinn wildfires are their primary job. The service manages 35,000 acres for state land management.
“Mitigation,” she said, “reduces the intensity of fires and makes them easier to control.”
One of the important ways forestry protects the woodlands, animals, homes and people is with prescribed burns. They deliberately burn specific wildland areas periodically to thin out and knock down natural fuel, making possible fires more manageable.
Contrary to what some people think, Samantha said, they are not destroying nature by controlled burns and mowing. Florida’s ecosystem is designed to burn, she noted. It’s nature’s way of opening up swaths of woodlands for deer and other animals to get to more food.
These fires weren’t a problem until humans introduced themselves into Florida and began to spread into the interior woodlands. Now these same good-for-nature fires often threaten human habitat.
It takes about ten months to regrow a typical area after a fire. Specialist Quinn said Florida has the fastest recovery rate for its natural cycle of any state. Clearing out brush is the natural role of fire throughout the state and native plants have evolved to tolerate heat, making them a good choice for landscaping homes.
If you choose to live in the woods, firefighters recommend you know how to protect your property.
Using rubber mulch or rock/gravel for plantings around your home is also advisable to keep fire from creeping up and involving it. Keep pine needles and other brush off the roof and out of the gutters and keep in mind that brush trucks also need 30-foot access to reach an area.
Forest Rangers Matthew Klindt and Anthony Corella agreed. The dry season will soon be starting, and they’re taking the opportunity to inform residents about ways to protect themselves from disastrous fires. “Weather is huge in fires,” they note.
Florida’s seasons are affected by Pacific weather patterns. El Nino causes drought and fires in the West, while producing rain here in the Southeast.
Then, in La Nina years, the pattern brings dry weather for this area, worsening fire season here. In January FFS will jump start its mitigation, anticipating a La Nina pattern. Weather is so important to Florida’s fire season that FFS has its own meteorologist producing local reports twice daily.
Hendry County is part of the District 17 Caloosahatchee Forestry Center, which encompasses three counties: Lee, Hendry and Collier. Its main office is in Fort Myers. Neighboring Glades County is in the Okeechobee District.
Forestry has eight assigned personnel in Hendry: 2 Senior Forest Rangers, 6 Forest Rangers, and 1 Forest Area Supervisor. Four to six are on duty at all times.
There are three ranger field locations in Hendry – Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest, the Devils Garden Tower Site and LaBelle Fire Department.
Equipment is staged at each site. Each morning forest rangers check all their equipment then head to Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest.
District 17 also incorporates the Immokalee area so trucks are always located at Immokalee Fire Station. One ranger assigned to Immokalee - Carlos DeLaCruz, who does his morning equipment check, then head out to Picayune Strand State Forest for the rest of his day.
Glades County is located in the Okeechobee District, which has a longer response distance in case of emergency, so mutual aid is important to both Hendry and Glades.
Fire Prevention Week
Firefighters take this week to educate kids - a great way to introduce them to safety at an early age. For decades kids have loved Smokey the Bear, one of firefighters’ important allies in fire safety. They visit the schools, show off lots of cool firefighter equipment and gear and reinforce their message with picture books and trinkets. They encourage the kids to take these things home to their parents, and share the message about burn rules.
Ranger Klindt said in addition to the schools, they take their message to parks, festivals and events like Earth Day where kids often remember their firefighter buddies and take their parents over to meet the real life forest ranger.
It’s another chance to involve the whole family and reach out to different people. They hope to get to the adults through the kids.
Currently, there are no active Firewise Communities in Hendry County, although Pioneer Plantation went through the process and held the designation for a while. Firewise Communities are neighborhoods where residents have collectively taken the recommended steps to make their communities safer from fire.
There are five steps to Firewise recognition:
Obtain a wildfire risk assessment as a written document from your state forestry agency or fire department.
Form a board or committee, and create an action plan based on the assessment.
Conduct a “Firewise Day” event such as clearing gutters, etc.
Invest a minimum of $2 per capita in local Firewise actions for the year.
Submit an application to your state Firewise liaison.
To maintain the recognition, communities must continue to conduct annual Firewise Day events and document their participation.
There is much fire danger in outlying areas and urban interface areas where humans have taken up residence in forested areas, so FFS routinely goes in to mow and cut down the fuel load, reducing the danger of a large fire, but FFS has no authority to go onto private property without permission
A day in the life
You never know when a fire may start, especially in the dry season, so firefighters check their equipment daily. They inspect their vehicles thoroughly checking the grease, gears, batteries and lights on dozers and brush trucks.
They cut fuel breaks in areas like Montura and Pioneer which, in case of fire, help deter flames from spreading and give firefighters an opportunity to knock it down. They can also protect homes and other structures.
FFS also does a lot of work in the Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest and personnel is out often doing projects to make it fire safe and improve the area for visitors.
If there was a recent wildfire in any area, rangers return to check out any hot spots that might have erupted from smoldering embers or new fallen pine needles.
Local Fire Departments
Local departments are best equipped to handle structure fires which can be ventilated as needed to help control the blaze. When a fire erupts, the local department is first to be dispatched to knock down the fire.
In the woods, Mother Nature’s whim dictates the ventilation and a breeze can change without warning, completely changing the direction a fire takes.
In a house fire, firefighters expect to deal with chemicals and fumes related to human habitation.
These days, human junk is scattered throughout the woods, so FFS personnel are also subject to these hazards, but cannot be equipped against them.
During a fire
When a large wildfire erupts, various agencies work together so communication is vital. That communication is augmented by a fixed wing aircraft flying over the area - “eyes in the sky” and also a helicopter equipped with a water bucket.
Ranger Corella said flames in a wildfire can average from five to 20 feet depending on the fuel available. Dry grass and underbrush go up quickly but the flames don’t reach too high.
It’s harder for flames to climb up tall slash pines with branches high up. Other variables include how dry the fuel is, as well as the amount of recent rain, freezes and humidity.
If no homes are in the area, they may simply watch and allow it to burn.
During fire events when so many of their numbers are deployed out to the scene, someone always stands by at three locations: Devils Garden, LaBelle FD and PPVFD with tractor plow so they are able to reach all of Hendry County more quickly should another fire erupt.
Longtime residents are not strangers to wildfires.
The most recent large Hendry County wildfire was last year at Helms Road caused by the rekindle of a controlled burn. People may also remember the Big Cypress Mud Lake fire that burned 35,000 acres in Collier County last May.