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Local News

Holiday Weekend Brings Wildfires

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Florida Forest Service
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Firefighters with the Florida Forest Service’s Blackwater District had a busy Martin Luther King holiday weekend, thanks in large part to low humidity and backyard burns gone wrong.

The largest of the blazes scorched 20 acres in Okaloosa County and the cause remains under investigation. Another ten acres were burned when a debris fire escaped a yard. Joe Zwierzchowski in the Blackwater office says measures to keep home debris fires under control are basically common sense and in the form of rules and regulations.

“You’ve got to be 25 ft. from any other brush or combustible structures. You have to be 25 ft. away from your house, and 150 ft. from any other occupied building,” said Zwierzchowski. “You also have to be 50 ft. away from the paved roads. It limits a lot of the areas for burning, but we want folks to be careful and mindful that it’s drying up out there.”

Three other fires totaled only about six acres. In 2014, 138 wildfires burned just over 3,800 acres in the Blackwater District of Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa Counties. Escaped yard burns -- involving tree trimmings, small brush and other vegetation – accounted for more than 20%. 

There’s no burn ban in effect for the Blackwater District: those are issued by the individual counties.  Burn hours are 8:00 a.m. until one hour before sunset every day. And it’s yard debris only. Items such as household garbage, treated lumber, plastic, rubber, pesticides and paint are prohibited.

Zwierzchowski says keeping a yard fire under control can involve no more than a charged garden hose, a shovel and your undivided attention. Once a fire gets out of control, then Blackwater and local fire departments are the next step. That could also take a bite out of your wallet.

“Based on the circumstances, the homeowner, the landowner, or the person in charge of that fire can be financially responsible for our equipment time,” Zwierzchowski said. “Heaven forbid it gets really bad and we have to start bringing out our helicopter. We’ve seen these bills get into the thousands of dollars very, very quickly.”

One way to reduce a home’s wildfire risk is to create 30 ft. of defensible space around the home. Also, clear out fire-prone plants and materials, such as wood for the fireplace, within three feet of the structure. Blackwater’s Joe Zwierzchowski says those precautions can help lessen the chances of a direct hit by a wildfire.

Families are encouraged to develop a wildfire escape plan, including two evacuation routes and a list of items to take with them.

More information can be found at www.floridaforestservice.com.