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Officials urge caution as wildfires continue to flare up

April 26, 2017
By CHUCK BALLARO ( , Pine Island Eagle

With Gov. Rick Scott declaring a statewide state of emergency following wildfires throughout the state, especially in Southwest Florida, local officials are urging homeowners and residents to take special care.

Two weekend ago saw two small fires spring up in Cape Coral, one on Southeast 24th Avenue, in the middle of town, and another north of Pine Island Road, near El Dorado Parkway where the city is most susceptible, that burned about four acres.

And last Friday and Saturday, a fire in?Lehigh Acres scorched 400 acres, destroying four homes, 13 additional structures, with 11 vehicles destroyed and 16 others damaged.

Officials said that blaze was started by a carelessly discarded cigarette.

In all there have been 38 call for grass or brush fires since the beginning of the year, most in March and April, according to Andrea Schuch Cape Coral Fire Department spokesperson.

"We get calls for brush fires on an almost daily basis. They are usually small and are extinguished very quickly or they pop up in fields next to homes," Schuch said. "It's easier to fight the grass fires than areas more heavily wooded."

In North Fort Myers, where firefighters battled a 70-acre fire in the Suncoast Estates area last week, there has been much of the same, a lot of smaller fires.

David Rice, North Fort Myers fire chief, said the conditions have been conducive to fire and that they have to respond to them at an above-average clip.

"I look at the humidity and the wind and I get a report every morning. It's very difficult to manage a fire with conditions like that," Rice said. "We get a lot of small fires and we get to them pretty quick before they turn into anything major."

Rice's crew, as well as other fire districts in Lee County and elsewhere, have teamed up to help quash as many fires as possible.

"We have good response procedures on a county level. If we have a brush fire at Prairie Pines, we can call on a strike team from another department to help extinguish the fire. We all work together and help each other," Rice said.

Lehigh Acres Fire Chief Robert Dilallo said the state of emergency will allow him to call in more people for overtime if need be, which could come in handy in the event of another large fire like the one they had this weekend at Rush and 16th Street, or when more than 400 acres burned in two separate fires a few weeks ago.

"It doesn't take much to start a fire. Out here we get a lot of cigarettes thrown out the window and four-wheelers driving through the brush and the mufflers tend to start fires," Dilallo said. "There are also the kids that start them."

Samantha Quinn, wildlife mitigation specialist and spokesperson for the Florida Forest Service, said the calls they have gotten regarding wildfires is already approaching the number they had for all of 2016, which was unusually wet.

With almost another month of dry season remaining, the risk of brush fires will continue to increase, barring anything unforeseen.

As conditions are so dry and windy this year, wildfires have spread faster and become more intense.

"Wind tends to dry out everything and evaporates moisture and, if there's a fire, it spreads quickly. The wind pushes it so fast our firefighters have a hard time keeping up with it," Quinn said, who added that this time of year, almost anything can start a fire.

"If there's anything that could ignite a wildlife, use caution or don't do it at all," Quinn said. "Chains on the back of a vehicle can cause sparks, a cigarette butt out the window or an unattended campfire can cause a fire."

Another issue is access. Rice said some fires, such as those in very thick brush, make00 it difficult for fighters to get to.

"When we can't get to them, fire can spread quickly. That's what happened at the fire we just had. We didn't get to it quick enough to put it out," Rice said.

Dilallo said the fires can "spot" several blocks at a time. If people are burning yard waste, the embers can travel several blocks and start a fire somewhere else, which his crews then need to jump on ASAP.

"We have fire every day that you don't hear about. Our policy during red flag days is we dump everything we have into these fires. We get on them quickly," Dilallo said.

Quinn said they're educating the community on making their homes safer and to make sure they're prepared in case they have to evacuate.

Schuch and Quinn suggested homeowners cut a 30-foot area around their home to decrease that urban/wildlife interface (which residents in the north Cape have to deal with). You can cut back bushes, trees near power lines and eliminate fallen branches from the area.

Also, teach children not to play with fire or things that can cause fire. Schuch said fire is a tool that needs to be handled responsibly.

"If you don't know how to use it, you can get hurt very badly. That's why children need to be taught how to deal with fire. They think it's cool and there's a curiosity about it, but they need to know about it," Schuch said.



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