Thursday, April 19, 2018
Public safety

Glen Lakes residents want compensation for damage caused during prescribed burn

WEEKI WACHEE — Two months ago, residents of the Glen Lakes community looked above the horizon and saw something that no homeowner ever wants to see: a wall of flames racing toward their property.

Within minutes, the normally quiet neighborhood that abuts the eastern edge of the 34,000-acre Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area was flooded by emergency responders from six agencies scrambling to control the blaze.

The prescribed burn, which got out of control when the wind direction shifted suddenly, threatened about a dozen homes along the western edge of the gated golf course community, north of Weeki Wachee. While no homes were lost and no one was injured, many residents said they were left with thousands of dollars worth of damage to their property.

While the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's official report on the fire isn't due out until later this week, agency officials say they have been attempting to make contact with residents affected by the incident.

Homeowner Carolyne Webb said she and several of her neighbors whose property sustained damage have contacted the state Department of Management Services about filing a claim.

"A lot of people lost their sprinkler systems, lawns and shrubs over something that wasn't their fault," Webb said. "It may not seem like much to some people, but it adds up. I would like to see something done about it."

Prescribed burns are meant to keep wildlife habitat healthy — and neighboring humans safe — by ridding the landscape of thick brush that acts as fuel for wildfires. The burn involving 200 acres on March 28 was intended to do just that, said Fish and Wildlife regional director Chris Wynn. But high wind gusts caused it to leap beyond its boundaries and spread to an undeveloped wooded area within Glen Lakes.

The aftermath brought questions from several Glen Lakes residents, who wondered why the state agency had decided to perform a controlled burn in dry conditions. However, Wynn said the agency had received proper permits and was cleared for the burn by the state forestry service.

"What happened was an unfortunate act of nature that no one could have predicted," said Wynn, who noted that just three of the 447 wildfires reported over the past 10 years in Hernando County grew from prescribed burns.

Wynn said that Fish and Wildlife and state forestry officials determined that excessive undergrowth on the Glen Lakes-owned land helped fuel the blaze as it got near homes. He has since met with Glen Lakes general manager David Craighead, who he said expressed interest in developing a "fire wise" plan that would help lessen the chances of another volatile wildfire.

"The chances are good that something like this could happen again at some point," Wynn said. "The better a private land owner can manage their property, the less likely they will suffer disastrous consequences from a fire."

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

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