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FFS: Be Careful When Burning Yard Debris


Residents across the Florida Panhandle are getting out of the house, cleaning up the yard, and burning the debris. WUWF’s Dave Dunwoody reports the Florida Forest Service is out with its annual reminder, that this is the driest time of the year -- meaning the most wildfire-friendly.

So far this year, 543 wildfires across Florida have scorched almost 14,000 acres, according to FFS.

“This is a great time of year for spring cleaning, but it can also be very dangerous,” said Joe Zwierzchowski at the Forest Service’s Blackwater District – which covers Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa Counties. He adds that the biggest thing people have to do is to meet the “legal setbacks” before burning yard debris.

“Tree trimmings, bushes and stuff like that, need to be 25 feet away from any other forested lands, brush or a combustible structure, like a shed,” said Zwierzchowski. “It needs to be 25 feet away from your house, 50 feet from a paved public road, and 150 feet away from your nearest neighbor.”

There’s extra yard debris this time around, generated by the tornadoes hitting Escambia County a few weeks ago. Most of that is being handled by professionals, but the small stuff no doubt is going into backyard piles.

Any such pile more than eight feet in diameter requires a permit from the Forest Service. Other tips: never turn your back on an open fire – whether it’s a debris pile, barbecue grill or a campfire -- and keep a garden hose or other water supply handy.

A new concept in preventing and minimizing wildfire damage is called “Firewise Landscaping.” Zwierzchowski says it’s gaining traction nationwide, from the Florida Keys to the Pacific Northwest.

“People have come to the realization that you can build a home, landscape it beautifully, in such a fashion that it won’t prohibit, but will greatly reduce your chances of losing the home or damaging the home in a wildfire,” said Zwierzchowski.

Some basics in setting up a “defensible space” include: thinning trees where the tops are 10-15 feet apart; Remove “ladder fuels” – plants that can carry a ground fire to the trees, and remove any large groupings of plants, whose oils and resins are highly combustible. 

“If you look at some of the holly bushes, the crepe myrtles – any plant with waxy leaves – it’s waxy because of the oils and resins inside that plant,” Zwierzchowski said. “A lot of people use pine straw in their landscaping, but if one little ember gets in there, all that pine straw will burn up.”

Instead of pine straw, bark, or wood chips, use lava stone or coarse gravel around any shrubbery within five feet of a structure.

Meanwhile, controlled burns are being conducted in Blackwater and elsewhere, aimed at removing fuel that could feed a wildfire. Forestry’s Joe Zwierzchowski says Florida has a year-round fire season, but this time of year is special, given the swings in winds and relative humidity.

Blackwater and the other districts in Florida do not issue burn bans – that’s up to the 67 individual counties. Burn hours are 8:00 a.m. until one hour before sunset every day. And if a fire gets out of control, and Blackwater and local fire departments called in, that could end up torching your wallet – you could be financially responsible for those calls.