SEBRING — County fire and administration officials have the go-ahead from county commissioners to work up an ordinance for an automatic burn ban.
Once in place, it would enact a burn ban once environmental conditions become severe enough, for long enough, to create a serious fire danger, said Highlands County Fire Rescue Chief Marc Bashoor.
He talked about two triggers, when asked by the Highlands News-Sun Tuesday outside the Board of County Commission meeting: soil conditions and weather conditions.
When the Keetch Byram Drought Index (KBDI) hits 550 or higher, as measured by the Florida Forest Service, Bashoor said vegetation has dried out enough to light easily. Florida usually hits that period for several days or weeks in a row from April to early June, when summer rains return. For the drought index to trigger a burn ban, he said, it would need to stay high for a sustained period.
At the meeting, Commission Chair Ron Handley suggested a three-day average, which Bashoor thought would be good.
Weather, the other trigger, would come into play when the National Weather Service issues a “red flag warning” for fire-prone conditions of low humidity, high heat and sustained winds.
For example — and only an example until he and other county emergency management officials can meet with County Attorney Joy Carmichael — Bashoor suggested that recent conditions of 10% humidity, 90-degree temperatures and winds of 20-30 mph make fire both likely and dangerous.
“I will work with Joy [Carmichael] on this,” Bashoor told the Highlands News-Sun. “These two things are general [and] don’t need a whole lot of research.”
While the Forest Service measures the drought index and issues burn permits for large area or debris burns, Bashoor said the state agency leaves burn bans up to local jurisdictions.
However, Florida Forest Service looks into possible burn ban violations and decides whether or not to cite people.
Penalties can be a $500 fine and/or 60 days in Highlands County Jail.
Typically, when residents are cooperative, they don’t get cited, and if they are uncooperative, they do, Bashoor said. Again, that’s up to the Forest Service, he said.
Last week, he said, Forest Service officials issued no burn permits because of red flag conditions, and Highlands County was still under a burn ban. Highlands County’s burn ban went into effect April 16, but was due to end soon because soil conditions had improved.
Because it’s a local law, Bashoor had to announce 10 days ago that it was due to get rescinded.
“That day, we got calls,” Bashoor said: Yard debris burns that got away from residents and started burning grass and trees.
Not that people waited to hear the ban would go away before burning.
“There were people burning all over the ban,” Bashoor said: “Dozens.”
Wind conditions made fighting such fires difficult, even those that appear to be accidental, at least until investigators can determine a cause. One such fire of unknown origin was the 11:20 a.m. Thursday blaze that tore through Mobile Home Depot at 4532 U.S. 27. Black plumes of smoke were visible for miles in every direction.
Seven employees and one customer escaped uninjured and only one firefighter received a minor injury.
The combination of smoke and firefighting operations shut down both directions of U.S. 27 for three hours, as high westerly winds blew the smoke over the roads and created challenges for firefighters. Even after three hours, two northbound lanes remained closed as crews continued to work the scene.
The fire marshal on scene estimated the damage at half a million dollars. Bashoor, citing the amount of damage from the steel-melting blaze, said the insurance company would have to determine the cause.
Highlands News-Sun Staff Writer Kim Allen contributed to this story.