Sunday, February 25, 2018
Public safety

After near miss in Hernando, state promises tighter controls on prescribed burns

WEEKI WACHEE — State wildlife officials say that tighter controls on prescribed burns should help prevent another near-catastrophe like the one that occurred in March when an out-of-control burn threatened homes in the Glen Lakes subdivision.

A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission report, released this week, outlines the circumstances of the March 29 controlled burn, which spread beyond its intended boundary and scorched more than 570 acres, including an undeveloped area owned by Glen Lakes, which abuts the eastern edge of the 34,000-acre Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area. The report makes several recommendations.

Prepared by Fish and Wildlife wild land fire coordinator Jimmy Conner, the report says that while the burn was done in accordance with established procedures, more caution might have prevented the fire's spread.

According to the report, the burn was conducted to rid a 200-acre sandhill habitat of undergrowth that had accumulated since the last prescribed burn in 2003. The plan called for taking advantage of low humidity and calm conditions so that winds would slowly push the fire toward a hammock area where high soil moisture would help contain its advance.

However, about three hours into the burn, the wind suddenly shifted to the east toward Glen Lakes, causing the burn crew to scramble to contain the blaze. Four brush trucks used to control the flames were overwhelmed, necessitating a call to the Florida Forestry Service and Hernando County firefighters to assist in fighting the fire, which for a time threatened about a dozen homes along the western edge of the gated golf course community, north of Weeki Wachee.

Although no homes were damaged, Nick Parente, president of the Glen Lakes Homeowners Association, said that many Glen Lakes residents were unhappy that Fish and Wildlife failed to notify the community in advance of the burn.

"Had they done that, I don't think there would have been as many complaints," Parente said. "This is a community that appreciates when people communicate with them, and in this case it was lacking."

Parente said he spoke with Fish and Wildlife officials shortly after the fire, but they offered little specific information on what happened. The report, he said, showed that the agency realized it hadn't done everything it could to mitigate the possibility of the fire spreading.

"My hope is that everyone learned a lesson from it," Parente said.

Fish and Wildlife southwest regional director Chris Wynn said he agreed with recommendations in the report suggesting that the agency needs to be better prepared when it comes to conducting controlled burns near residential developments. Those recommendations include obtaining up-to-the-minute weather evaluations and having additional firefighting equipment on hand.

"It was an unfortunate situation that was due to unforeseen circumstances," Wynn said of the March fire.

Wynn also noted that his agency will continue to work with Glen Lakes homeowners as well as other private developments in the hope of encouraging them to adopt land management programs that can help reduce the threat of fires.

"A workable land management program will limit the danger of that happening again," he said. "Hopefully, we can work together with the Glen Lakes folks and find a solution that will benefit everyone."

Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.

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