Prevention efforts limited 2011 wildfire damage in Hernando

Smoke blows across Mondon Hill Road in Brooksville last June as Hernando County Fire personnel and U.S. Forestry Service work to mop up a 13-acre brush fire. In 2011, Hernando had 161 reported brush or wildfires, the third lowest among 67 counties.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times (2011)

Smoke blows across Mondon Hill Road in Brooksville last June as Hernando County Fire personnel and U.S. Forestry Service work to mop up a 13-acre brush fire. In 2011, Hernando had 161 reported brush or wildfires, the third lowest among 67 counties.

Though 2011 was one of Florida's worst wildfire seasons in recent memory, Hernando County had just 161 reported brush or wildfires — third lowest among the state's 67 counties.

That wasn't just luck, says Don Ruths, a wildfire mitigation specialist with the Florida Division of Forestry. Rather, it's the result of a cooperative effort by state and local agencies aimed at reducing the spread of wildfires and educating the public about ways to prevent them.

For the past three years, much of Central Florida has suffered from drier than normal conditions. That, coupled with a milder than usual winter, has set the stage for what Ruths believes could be an active wildfire season.

"We're in a prolonged La Niña cycle, and that usually heightens the conditions that can start brush fires," Ruths said. "We've been working to be more proactive the past few years, and it's been paying off. We're not seeing the widespread damage we used to."

According to Hernando County Fire Rescue figures, the 295 acres of brush that burned in 2011 were far less than 2009, when a record 2,358 acres were scorched by wildfires.

Ruths credits much of the recent improvement to the Forestry Division's mitigation and prevention strategy with agencies such as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Southwest Florida Water Management District, both of which manage large tracts of land in the county.

A combination of periodic controlled burns, brush clearing and maintenance of fire breaks has enabled the Forestry Division to better contain wildfires and keep them from spreading, Ruths said.

"Reducing undergrowth wherever possible greatly limits the fuel that fires live on," he said. "When it builds up too much, you have a recipe for disaster."

Ruths cited as an example the 2009 wildfire that consumed more than 400 acres near Bayport. The blaze, which was started by a lightning strike, took nearly three days to contain.

In addition to stepping up prevention tactics, the division has been working diligently with county fire officials to better educate residents about their own prevention and readiness plans.

According to Assistant Fire Chief Frank DeFrancesco, Hernando County Fire Rescue follows guidelines set up two years ago by the International Association of Fire Chiefs, under the moniker "Ready, Set, Go!"

The program teaches residents in rural woodland areas how to prepare their homes against the threat of wildfire, assemble emergency supplies and maintain awareness when fire threatens. An emphasis is also placed on knowing how to evacuate safely so firefighters have room to fight blazes.

DeFrancesco said that the program has been well received by residents.

"Many people don't realize that a little common sense goes a long way toward preventing a tragedy," he said. "Simply keeping thick brush from growing too close to your house can be the difference between saving it and losing it."

DeFrancesco said the county's volunteer fire corps regularly presents workshops and lectures at public events and conducts door-to-door campaigns in rural areas of the county.

"There is nothing we can do about natural factors that cause wildfires, but we believe we can eliminate many of the human factors," Ruths said. "The hope is that people will learn to be more fire wise and work with us to help prevent them."

Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or lneill@tampabay.com.

Though 2011 was one of Florida's worst wildfire seasons in recent memory, Hernando County had just 161 reported brush or wildfires — third lowest among the state's 67 counties.

That wasn't just luck, says Don Ruths, a wildfire mitigation specialist with the Florida Division of Forestry. Rather, it's the result of a cooperative effort by state and local agencies aimed at reducing the spread of wildfires and educating the public about ways to prevent them.

For the past three years, much of Central Florida has suffered from drier than normal conditions. That, coupled with a milder than usual winter, has set the stage for what Ruths believes could be an active wildfire season.

"We're in a prolonged La Niña cycle, and that usually heightens the conditions that can start brush fires," Ruths said. "We've been working to be more proactive the past few years, and it's been paying off. We're not seeing the widespread damage we used to."

According to Hernando County Fire Rescue figures, the 295 acres of brush that burned in 2011 were far less than 2009, when a record 2,358 acres were scorched by wildfires.

Ruths credits much of the recent improvement to the Forestry Division's mitigation and prevention strategy with agencies such as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Southwest Florida Water Management District, both of which manage large tracts of land in the county.

A combination of periodic controlled burns, brush clearing and maintenance of fire breaks has enabled the Forestry Division to better contain wildfires and keep them from spreading, Ruths said.

"Reducing undergrowth wherever possible greatly limits the fuel that fires live on," he said. "When it builds up too much, you have a recipe for disaster."

Ruths cited as an example the 2009 wildfire that consumed more than 400 acres near Bayport. The blaze, which was started by a lightning strike, took nearly three days to contain.

In addition to stepping up prevention tactics, the division has been working diligently with county fire officials to better educate residents about their own prevention and readiness plans.

According to Assistant Fire Chief Frank DeFrancesco, Hernando County Fire Rescue follows guidelines set up two years ago by the International Association of Fire Chiefs, under the moniker "Ready, Set, Go!"

The program teaches residents in rural woodland areas how to prepare their homes against the threat of wildfire, assemble emergency supplies and maintain awareness when fire threatens. An emphasis is also placed on knowing how to evacuate safely so firefighters have room to fight blazes.

DeFrancesco said that the program has been well received by residents.

"Many people don't realize that a little common sense goes a long way toward preventing a tragedy," he said. "Simply keeping thick brush from growing too close to your house can be the difference between saving it and losing it."

DeFrancesco said the county's volunteer fire corps regularly presents workshops and lectures at public events and conducts door-to-door campaigns in rural areas of the county.

"There is nothing we can do about natural factors that cause wildfires, but we believe we can eliminate many of the human factors," Ruths said. "The hope is that people will learn to be more fire wise and work with us to help prevent them."

Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or lneill@tampabay.com.

.fast facts

Homeowner tips for preventing wildfires

• Maintain at least a 30-foot clear perimeter between dense woods and structures.

• Prune tree branches 6 to 10 feet from the ground and remove any dead plant material around all structures, including gutters.

• Use fire-resistant materials for roof and exterior construction.

• Burn yard waste in the morning before winds rise. Always keep a water hose and shovel handy in case the fire gets out of control.

Source: Hernando County Fire Rescue

Prevention efforts limited 2011 wildfire damage in Hernando 02/03/12 [Last modified: Friday, February 3, 2012 9:05pm]

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