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Local News

April Promotes Wildfire Prevention & Awareness

Florida Forest Service

Wildfire Awareness Week kicks off Monday, reminding Floridians to be careful when burning outdoors.

Wildfire Awareness Week was created in the aftermath of Florida’s devastating wildfires of 1998, which burned more than a half million acres and also damaged or destroyed 337 homes and buildings. Human-caused wildfires are the leading cause on the local, state and national levels.

Joe Zwierzchowski at Forestry’s Blackwater Office, which covers Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa Counties, says their message is that it’s up to all residents to prevent wildfires.

“Be aware of your surroundings and what’s going on,” said Zwierzchowski. “If you’re burning stuff in the backyard, be cautious with it. Keep a hose handy; make sure you’ve got everything in order and you do it as safely as possible.”

Since January 1, 629 wildfires have burned more than 6,900 acres statewide. In the Blackwater district, 255 acres have been torched by 55 blazes during the same period. Wildlife Awareness Week in Florida comes each year at a time, when conditions are ripe for wildfires.

“Our habitat, our eco-system lends itself to burning 12 months out of the year,” Zwierzchowski said. “A lot of people think, ‘it’s dry, a little more windy and cold in the winter, and that’s when our wildfires are.’ In reality, it’s March, April and May when that new growth starts is when we see the most activity.”

Tips include obtaining a burning authorization from the Florida Forest Service for piles larger than eight feet in diameter, or keep the size under that. The key word here, says Zwierzchowski, is containment, containment, containment.

  • 45 ft. away from any woods, brush or combustible structure
  • 25 ft. away from your residence
  • 150 ft. away from all other occupied buildings
  • 50 ft. from any paved, public roadway

Also, keep brush piles below eight ft. in diameter, and preferably use a container, or “burn barrel.”
Other tips: never leave a fire unattended; make sure it’s completely out before leaving, and check the weather forecast before firing up.

Zwierzchowski says it’s a good idea to discuss with their kids how to prevent fires and what to do in case one does start. And it’s also a good idea to develop a wildfire escape plan – which most people may already have in another form.

“It’s as simple as a hurricane plan; everybody in Florida has one of those,” said Zwierzchowski. “Of course, we have more wildfires in Florida than we do hurricanes, and it’s important to be prepared for these things. And really, you can adapt any household emergency plan to almost any scenario and any situation.”

That plan should also include at least two evacuation routes out of a neighborhood, along with a list of items to take with you.

Floridians are urged to report suspicious activity to the Arson Alert Hotline, at 1-800-342-5869. Callers may remain anonymous, and information about an arson-caused fire could be worth up to a $5,000 reward.