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Fire officials: Gird homes against wildfire threat

Trying to move fast as a brush fire crept dangerously close to his Pasco County home, 77-year-old Tom Newman did what he saw decades ago at his sister's California home.

He grabbed a hose and got up on the roof.

"That's the first thing I thought of — to wet the roof down," said Newman, who stayed up there two hours. "Those cinders were flying, and them things will burn anything."

It's an understandable reaction, but it won't protect your home, said Gerry LaCavera of the state's forestry division

With a severe drought, the prospect of an historic fire season and so many people living near woods, firefighters and foresters are scrambling to get people to treat wildfire season like hurricane season: Prepare for the worst.

Peak wildfire season runs from March to May, but Florida already has seen more than 560 wildfires this year, compared to 430 for all of 2008.

"Why don't people take the steps to prepare? They think, 'Oh, that's what insurance is for,' or 'It can't happen to me,' " LaCavera said.

• • •

Lightning caused only one of the fires recorded this year, state forestry records show. The rest? People.

Children playing with lighters, people burning yard waste, arson — those are the top three causes of brush fires that destroy wildlife and threaten homes. Then there are things you don't expect, but are very common, like sparks from faulty car brakes and trains. Campfires that look like they're out, but aren't. Flicked cigarette butts. And one case of jilted teens burning love letters.

"The big thing is, people don't understand fire," said Hernando County assistant fire chief Frank DeFrancesco. "They think of it in terms of cooking, entertainment, warmth. They don't realize that fire almost lives on its own, breathes on its own and grows on its own."

Most Floridians know the basics of preparing for hurricanes — three days of food and water, boarding windows, bringing lawn furniture inside. Lesser known, but just as simple, are the steps to protect homes from wildfires: Cleaning the roof and gutters, clearing flammable materials within 30 feet of the house, using water- or stone-based landscaping.

Those state forestry numbers of 560-plus incidents, by the way, are low, according to DeFrancesco. Many times, local fire rescue departments don't even report their brush fires to state forestry firefighters.

DeFrancesco said local firefighters are battling one to two brush fires every day. That's just in his county.

• • •

Tom and Jo Newman said they do as much as they can to prevent fires — clearing the roof, making sure the gutters and lawn are clear.

But when it comes to brush fires, they say many things are out of their control.

People need to be more aware of the things that can start fires, Newman said, especially considering this year's increased risk.

"You just have to wait and see, that's all I know," he said. "You can't control people. It just kind of puts you on edge."

Emily Nipps can be reached at (727) 893-8452 or nipps@sptimes.com. Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@sptimes.com.

Protecting your home from wildfires

1. Roof: Forestry officials say the No. 1 focus in fireproofing your home should be your roof. Regularly clean the gutters and clear the shingles of any pine needles, leaves or other debris. If it's damaged in any way, perhaps from a hurricane or age, repair it.

2. A 30-foot barrier: Studies show that the most critical area to keep clear of flammable materials extends to 30 feet around your home. That's the minimum distance in which the extreme heat that radiates off a brush or forest fire is less likely to ignite a home.

3. Landscaping: Certain types of plants and mulch are oily and very flammable, and could catch fire from radiant heat or wandering embers. The most common oily Florida plants are pines, saw palmetto, wax myrtle and melaleuca. Fruit trees, oaks, sago palms and hydrangeas are safer. Chunky bark mulch is better than shredded mulch or pine straw. Lava stones and gravel are even better.

Preventing wildfires before they happen

Here are the top five known causes of this year's brush fires, according to the Florida Division of Forestry:

1. Burning debris or trash: People should pay close attention to drought and wind conditions before burning anything in their yards, and be aware that small fires can jump and spread quickly.

2. Arson: There have already been a reported 78 incidents of arson, resulting in more than 1,380 burned acres, just this year.

3. Equipment fires: Fix faulty brakes or anything that might spark, and be careful about parking hot engines or machines over dry grass.

4. Children: Kids are fascinated with fire and like to play with lighters and matches. They have caused at least 31 fires this year.

5. Campfire: It might look like it's fully extinguished. It's probably not.

Top 3 reasons why we should care

1. The economy: Wildfires have a major impact on Florida's timber industry, which lessens the amount of money coming into the state.

2. Wildlife and environment: Wild animals have always had a natural ability to escape fires, but it's more difficult when they're trapped between housing developments. Smoke affects air quality.

3. Your own money: Even if you're doing an authorized burn, and the fire spreads by accident, you can be fined as little as $100 and as much as the cost of putting out hundreds of acres of brush fire.

Fire officials: Gird homes against wildfire threat 02/25/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 27, 2009 10:10am]
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