Carlos R. Munoz
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla.
SARASOTA COUNTY — A beehive smoker, bush-hogging mowers and a tire blowout are just three of the ways brush fires have started in the Myakka River District this year.
Over the weekend, five wildfires burned 174.9 acres in Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and Hardee counties, according to the Florida Forest Service, destroying 13 vehicles. There are about 14,894 acres of active wildfires burning statewide.
With the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services saying drought conditions and increased fire dangers are expected to continue for the “foreseeable future,” crews were fighting 41 wildfires Tuesday morning across the state — including major blazes in Southwest Florida, according to the News Service of Florida.
“Florida’s wildland firefighters are prepared to battle increasingly hazardous wildfires across the state, but it’s imperative that Floridians are cautious with fire to help protect Florida’s residents, natural resources and wildland firefighters,” Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, whose department includes the Florida Forest Service, said in a prepared statement.
The largest fire, totaling 16,794 acres in Collier County, was 50 percent contained, according to the department, the News Service of Florida said. The second-largest fire, totaling 2,800 acres in Hendry County, also was 50 percent contained, as was a 450-acre fire in Polk County.
FFS spokesman Patrick Mahoney, a wildfire mitigation specialist, said it was about a year ago that a ferocious fire fueled by 15 to 20 mph winds incinerated 3,112 acres of woodlands northeast of North Port. Conditions are eerily similar heading into Easter weekend, when families are expected to be outside cooking.
Local fire officials ask anyone who is having an outside fire to make sure when they are done that the coals are cool. Those using heavy equipment such as large lawn tractors are asked to carry a fire extinguisher to suppress small flames caused by the exhaust and friction.
Mahoney said weather conditions are being watched on a daily basis and burn authorizations will be refused on days with a high risk.
Currently, the FFS lists 12 counties statewide as very high fire dangers: Charlotte, Lee, Pinellas, Seminole, Orange, Brevard, Indian River, Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Highlands. No county north of Seminole is at more than moderate risk.
Rain lowered Manatee County’s fire danger to high and Sarasota is considered at moderate risk.
“This happens to be the most active part of the year,” said Mahoney, who spent Mother’s Day last year responding to Sarasota County’s worst wildfire since 1998.
The Raintree fire — named for its origin at Raintree Boulevard and North Yorkshire Street west of Interstate 75 in North Port — began with a 75-acre brush fire.
The fire devoured 200 acres every half-hour in its first days, leaving a coat of white ash in its wake. It took fire services rotating in crews of 50 firefighters a month to put out.
Sarasota County Fire Department Mitigation Officer Jay Bailey said his agency has 15 firefighters trained to manage brush fires. They perform prescribed burns for Sarasota County using a fleet of brush trucks, bulldozers, and aircraft if necessary.
The wildfire fire team is also trained to understand the weather and they perform prescribed burns in Sarasota County.
There have been 36 brush fires in Sarasota County this year, according to Sarasota County spokeswoman Ashley Lusby. There were 14 in January, nine in February, and 13 so far in March — not including “outside fires” that do not qualify as a brush fire.
There were three fires that required the assistance of FFS that totaled about 30 acres.
Less than one percent of controlled burns escape to cause significant wildfires, according to the FFS.
Mahoney said most of the fires are “human caused.”
“We’ve had one fire from a flat tire,” Mahoney said. “A piece of rubber hit the grass and started a fire. Those are some odd fires.”
A beehive smoker — a device used to calm honey bees — started a 26-acre fire near Hawkins Road and Ibis Road in Sarasota County over the weekend.
Mahoney said those causes were unusual and most fires are the result of unauthorized pile burns. He said the fine for an illegal burn begins at $150.
The penalty is even higher if an air tanker shows up.
A year after the Raintree fire, Mahoney said rural North Port is recovering and remnants of the intense blaze aren’t noticeable. Crews are still clearing debris from the area.
“That’s fuel. If we do get another wildfire out there that’s all stuff that’s readily available to burn,” Mahoney said.
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