Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Public safety

Nature's reminder to 'resort living bordering on the wild'

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I think we can all agree that controlled burns should, in fact, be controlled — and that the blaze that threatened the Glen Lakes community last week definitely wasn't.

And the people there don't want to hear, as one wildlife official has said, that the cause of this wildfire was just a curveball from Mother Nature.

Several homeowners told me that last Friday was dry and breezy, the eve of a holiday weekend when Glen Lakes was full of guests. They can't believe the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission even considered a prescribed burn that day.

Neither can Hernando County Commission Chairman David Russell. He's calling wildlife and forestry officials to Tuesday's commission meeting and on the carpet.

Russell, an amateur pilot, consulted an aviation website that specializes in accurate wind forecasts on the morning of the burn. The outlook was for increasing gusts after 11 a.m., he said, and "I knew I wouldn't be flying that day."

I understand.

I understand the desire to second-guess.

I understand — and totally agree with — the argument that land managers planning a burn need to warn people who live nearby. They didn't in this case.

I realize it must be alarming to see bucket-wielding helicopters buzzing your gated community and even more alarming when they vanish behind curtains of smoke.

But I also remember the old marketing slogan for Glen Lakes — "Resort living bordering on the wild."

And, you know, I bet it's nice out there on the edge of the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area, what with the peace and quiet, the chance to see eagles and bears.

But just like people who move onto lime rock roads, people buying homes in Glen Lakes knew what they were getting into. And along with the pleasant things that come with having a vast patch of natural land for a back yard comes at least one unpleasant one: prescribed burns.

To spare Glen Lakes residents the standard lecture about the benefits of the burns, I'll limit myself to this comparison, one I think they might be able to relate to. Fire is to forest as sprinklers, chemicals and lawn mowers are to St. Augustine lawns. They are maintenance. They keep the forests alive.

Probably about half of the people who live in Glen Lakes are aware of this, said Robert Widmar, a longtime resident. They're just asking for more precautions and better communication.

That's fine — exactly right, in fact.

But I worry about the other half. I worry that Tuesday's discussion about preventing this one out-of-hand fire will itself get out of hand, and that wildlife folks will become too afraid of public backlash to do their job properly.

And one reason I worry about it is that Russell and Glen Lakes residents sound so sure that last Friday was a bad day for burning.

No, said Fish and Wildlife spokesman Gary Morse, the forecast called for light ground-level winds, and it turned out to be accurate. The highest wind measured by the burn crew that day was 5.4 mph. The direction shifted as workers were wrapping up in the early afternoon, before they could have reasonably expected a westerly sea breeze.

Sounds like a curve to me. People who live with nature should know that happens from time to time.

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