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Fish and Wildlife official promises answers for fire that threatened Glen Lakes

A helicopter flies over Glen Lakes homes to battle a wildfire on March 29.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

A helicopter flies over Glen Lakes homes to battle a wildfire on March 29.

BROOKSVILLE — Projected on the wall was a bright plume of flames, framed by two houses in Glen Lakes, a picture snapped during the March 29 wildfire that threatened the well-manicured, gated community.

"If you live there, that's pretty scary,'' Chris Wynn, regional director for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, acknowledged as he gazed at the photograph.

Wynn was summoned to Tuesday's Hernando County Commission meeting to answer questions about how a 200-acre prescribed burn his agency set on Good Friday in the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area got out of hand and torched more than twice that much acreage, threatening to sweep through Glen Lakes.

"This isn't a lynching. We don't want to beat anyone up,'' said County Commission Chairman Dave Russell.

The purpose for the discussion, he said, was to make it clear "we can't let it happen again.''

Wynn told commissioners he was not authorized to talk about the specifics of what happened to cause the fire to spread out of control. That is currently under investigation by Fish and Wildlife, he said, and a report will be forwarded to the county when it is complete.

The Florida Forest Service, which was called in when the fire began to grow, also is investigating, Wynn said.

He did talk about why prescribed burns are necessary, and he noted that, in the last 10 years, there have been 447 wildfires reported in Hernando County. The one that threatened Glen Lakes was one of only three that grew out of a controlled burn, he said.

After the investigation is finished, Wynn said, Fish and Wildlife will assess lessons learned from the incident, and there will be a meeting with Glen Lakes residents.

One of those residents, Robert Widmar, said he stood across the street from the frightening column of fire that was shown on the wall of the commission chambers Tuesday. He thanked Hernando fire crews and those from surrounding jurisdictions, and especially the helicopter operator who dumped water on the fire, for keeping homes and lives safe.

Widmar described damage to residents' irrigation systems as fire crews worked to protect the structures. He spoke about the ashes and embers that coated driveways and golf course fairways and how some homes still smell like smoke.

He asked why no one got in touch with the community to warn them what was coming their way.

Russell said that Wynn's agency should address how communications can be improved in the future. He also questioned why Fish and Wildlife approved a burn at a time when the vegetation was so dry.

He wondered whether there might be too big a push to get scheduled burns completed. But Wynn assured him: "That is certainly not going to drive a day-to-day decision'' on whether to do a prescribed burn.

Many conditions are considered before making a decision to conduct a burn, Wynn said, and there are always detailed plans written for how a burn will be done, how many people will be part of the plan and what to do in case things get out of hand.

"We recognize that prescribed burning is inherently dangerous,'' he said. "We take it very seriously.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

Fish and Wildlife official promises answers for fire that threatened Glen Lakes 04/09/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 9, 2013 7:04pm]
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