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Controlled burn in preserve reduces wildfire threat

Officials set fire to a 25-acre section of Brooker Creek Preserve as part of an effort to rob wildfires of potential fuel.

Smoke wafted into the air over Brooker Creek Preserve again Tuesday, but this time it was on purpose: A fire crew was burning a 25-acre section of the preserve near the Ridgemoor community.

The prescribed burn Tuesday was part of Pinellas County's effort to lessen the danger of wildfires in the 8,500-acre preserve. It burned away waxy palmetto bushes and other undergrowth that might otherwise fuel a wildfire. Planned fires move more slowly and burn lower and cooler, leaving mature trees unharmed.

"We've been waiting to burn this for quite a few weeks," preserve manager Craig Huegel said. The crew members needed a rare west wind to blow the smoke away from homes, he said. They got it Tuesday.

A June wildfire within a quarter-mile of the Coventry Village at Ridgemoor subdivision underscored the threat wildfires can pose to homes in neighborhoods that abut the preserve. Huegel said at the time that more prescribed fires were needed to lessen the danger.

Another June fire in the Oldsmar section of the preserve burned for days, scorching about 400 acres. Fortunately, that fire burned away from homes.

The preserve staff plans to burn more land during the six weeks remaining in the summer burning season. Summer and winter are the safest times for planned burning.

Tuesday's fire expands an already-burned area at the center of the preserve, Huegel said.

"We feel that if we have the middle area burned, at least we have kind of a safe area in the middle," lessening the chance that a huge fire could sweep the 8-mile, north-south distance the preserve covers, he said.

After the June fires, Pinellas County officials also promised to create firebreaks around subdivisions that back up to the preserve.

Many back yards in those neighborhoods are right next to thick forest, placing homes in danger from a wildfire.

Huegel said he expects work to begin within a month at Ridgemoor. Crews will carefully cut down trees to create a 15-foot clear-cut band next to yards. Beyond that, in a 50- to 100-foot band, undergrowth will be removed and the forest thinned.