WEEKI WACHEE — Prescribed burns are one of the most effective ways to keep wildlife habitat healthy, experts say. By ridding the landscape of thick brush that acts as fuel for wildfires, controlled burns can help renew forests and make them more habitable to creatures that depend on them for a food source.
However, it's fairly easy for a prescribed burn to get out of hand and threaten nearby human populations. A shift in wind direction, or a strong gust, can leave fire tenders scrambling to keep a blaze under control.
That's pretty much what happened Friday, when the prescribed burn of 220 acres in the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area went awry, threatening several homes in nearby Glen Lakes in northwest Hernando County.
The out-of-control fire will have no impact on plans for prescribed burns in the wildlife management area, Jeff McGready, a regional biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said Monday.
Before Friday's fire could be brought under control, it consumed roughly 775 acres, including about 170 belonging to the subdivision.
While there were no active flames Monday, lingering smoke may continue for several days, officials said.
McGready said that conditions were ideal for Friday's prescribed burn, which got under way about 10 a.m. However, members of the crew tending the fire said that about 2 p.m. a sudden change in wind direction caused flames to jump a fire line that had been dug to keep the burn within its designated perimeter. Before long, it had spread faster than crews were able to handle it with the limited amount of fire equipment they had on hand.
Units from fire departments from Spring Hill and Hernando, Citrus and Pasco counties, plus the Florida Division of Forestry, responded and finally brought it under control a few hours later. Although no homes were damaged, the fire came within 50 feet of a couple of houses. Residents in the golf course community spent much of the weekend tidying up yards that were trampled by emergency crews and ridding their homes of the smell of smoke.
Bordered on the west by the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, the roughly 34,000-acre management area is the subject of routine prescribed burns throughout the year. Fish and Wildlife receives its burn permits through the Division of Forestry, which gives the go-ahead based on weather conditions and predictions. The agency often notifies residents when it feels they might be affected by smoke.
Fish and Wildlife spokesman Gary Morse said that although Glen Lakes management was not notified of Friday's burn, the agency met with members of the homeowners association afterward and will notify residents whenever a future controlled burn is scheduled near the subdivision.
Forestry spokesman Don Ruths said that some of the homes that were threatened Friday were as close as 10 feet from the edge of the preserve. Forestry officials recommend that developers leave a buffer of at least 30 feet between homes and wild lands.
"That's an unfortunate design error," Ruths said.
Logan Neill can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1435.