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Plan to burn preserve may be all wet

A plan to use a helicopter to start controlled fires on up to 500 acres in the Brooker Creek Preserve remains up in the air.

Pinellas County and state officials had planned to burn part of the 8,500-acre nature preserve by mid March to eliminate dry underbrush that could feed an uncontrolled wildfire later.

But the wet winter means they might have to try again next year.

"Because of the fairly regular recent rains it's looking very doubtful that we're going to be able to do an aerial burn this winter," said Craig Huegel, administrator of Pinellas County's division of environmental lands. "If we do it, it'll likely be in April _ if we can get the equipment lined up, and if the weather actually cooperates for this type of thing."

Huegel said the elements just haven't been in place this winter for the burn, which would clear dry brush in the pine flatwoods south of Ridgemoor Boulevard.

The wetlands are wet, which is great, he said, because they won't burn. But some of the uplands also have standing water and will not burn.

"We could fly overhead with a helicopter and catch a few things on fire," he said, but "we wouldn't really get the results we're looking for because a lot of things we want to burn just won't."

Besides the right weather conditions, securing the helicopter could also prove to be difficult. The state Division of Forestry has four or five helicopters, but demand for them is high because December's heavy rains threw off controlled burns in other parts of the state.

If used, the helicopter would start the fires by dropping thousands of spheres the size of pingpong balls, each filled with a combustible combination of ethylene glycol, the scientific term for antifreeze, and potassium permanganate. The glycol is injected into the balls just before they are dropped, and the chemical reaction ignites the balls about the time they hit the ground.

Starting the fires by helicopter would allow officials to burn larger areas than they could by working on the ground. It also would enable them to reach more remote areas of the preserve.

"Right now there is still a possibility that we might be able to get the equipment we need later in the spring," Huegel said. "These people get scheduled all across the state. They may be totally scheduled elsewhere."

Officials would also have to assemble their wild land fire team to make sure the fire remains under control. The rain has covered some of the areas where the fire team would need to be.

"We would have to have it be a little drier to safely position our fire trucks," Huegel said. "Even being four-wheel drive, they have a limit to how much water and mud they can operate through."

This is the second year that state and county officials have tried to arrange a large-scale aerial burn in the preserve. The last aerial burn in Pinellas County was in the late 1980s or early 1990s at Boyd Hill Nature Park in St. Petersburg.

Huegel said the burning is needed because many of the pine flatwoods in that area of the preserve are flammable. When fires do not regularly occur, the plants keep growing, which only adds more fuel to natural fires.

"We can't stop fire from occurring," Huegel said. "What we can do is make the fire less intense by not having so much flammable material for the fire to burn when it happens."

The burning would be done in phases over three days and might require 500 to 1,000 fuel balls per acre.

If officials are not able to burn the brush by next month, they will have to wait until next year. Summer weather would cause the fire to be hotter, more intense and harder to control.

Waiting another year won't make much of a difference, Huegel said. But every year that passes without a burn increases the risk for a wildfire.

"It would be good if we can get in there and reduce the fuel loads and put it into a more regular burn pattern," he said. "It would make us feel more comfortable."

_ Megan Scott can be reached at (727) 444-4183 or