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Free COVID testing this week, prepare for hurricanes, Reiss said

SEBRING — Highlands County COVID-19 infections have hit a 45-day doubling rate, which is good, said Emergency Manager LaTosha Reiss.

It means sheltering-in-place measures have helped flatten the curve, she said, though she hopes the numbers will stay level and/or drop off instead of seeing a spike in infection cases.

“Just because things are reopening, we want to reiterate to people, that doesn’t mean that COVID(-19) has gone away,” Reiss said. “It just means we did what we were initially trying to do in flattening the curve.”

Numbers she reported to the Board of County Commission on Tuesday tallied 107 cases in the county, with eight deaths. The numbers did not change for Wednesday [See related story and graphics on A3].

The number of people positive for the novel coronavirus has come down to 3-4% of those tested, Reiss said, compared with 20% or more several weeks ago. She said the number of tests given has gone up.

Hospital bed statistics have done “really well” over the last couple of weeks, Reiss said — at 50% rates — to make sure an influx of coronavirus patients doesn’t overwhelm hospital capacity.

“We’ve been trying to mine out the data, daily, of how many [patients] are actively in the hospital,” Reiss said of Highlands County’s 36 “hospitalized” coronavirus patients, “but that’s not something that DOH provides to us. That’s something we’re having to find out for ourselves.”

The number of currently-hospitalized patients is three, she said.

Additional testing local events have been scheduled by the Health Department for May, free to individuals 18 years or older who would like to be tested, symptoms or not, with no insurance required. Testing is taking place today — Thursday, May 21 — from 5-7 p.m. at the Highlands County Health Department, 7205 South George Blvd. in Sebring. Another event, Reiss said, will be 9-11 a.m. Tuesday, May 26, at Memorial Elementary School, 867 S. Memorial Drive in Avon Park.

All of them are drive-through events with all participants encouraged to wear personal protection masks.

Unfortunately, Reiss said, because of the sheer volume of tests to be done and the limited number of laboratories, test results are taking five to seven days to return.

There is also a priority in place to test all residents and staff of all assisted living facilities, long-term care facilities and nursing homes, Reiss said, which will also increase wait times.

For more details on testing, call the Health Department at 863-386-6040. For tips on hand washing and staying healthy, visit the Health Department online at floridahealthCOVID19.gov, or the Centers for Disease Control at www.cdc.gov/coronavirus.

People may also contact the Florida Department of Health’s COVID-19 call center at (866) 779-6121.

In the meantime, Reiss said, she needs people to also remember that hurricane season is coming.

“Some can say it’s already here,” Reiss said.

She said the county is looking at shelters to reorganize them to comply with CDC social distancing guidelines, should any have to open soon.

Nature Conservancy, partners protect biodiverse Rafter T Ranch

ORLANDO — The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and partners announce the protection of the critical and diverse landscapes of Rafter T Ranch, a working cattle ranch of more than 5,000 acres located along the eastern edge of the Lake Wales Ridge in Sebring.

This region of Central Florida is part of the Everglades watershed, containing some of the oldest natural habitats and most biodiverse lands in the state, and is critical to water supply to the Everglades and aquifer.

Home to imperiled and iconic plants and wildlife including the Florida panther, Florida black bear, bald eagle, swallow-tailed kite, Florida scrub-jay, southern fox squirrel, and roseate spoonbill, Rafter T Ranch connects to large tracts of protected lands to form a contiguous natural corridor in Highlands County.

For nearly a decade, the Conservancy has spearheaded a joint effort to safeguard the ranch from the pressure of potential development and preserve the ranch’s role as part of the connected corridor of essential lands that benefit wildlife and support water flow and storage. The property is bordered to the east by Arbuckle Creek, which flows southward to the 28,000-acre Lake Istokpoga. With conservation easements on the ranch now in place to protect nearly the entire property, ranching operations will continue while development is prohibited in perpetuity.

The ranch has engaged in land management practices, water conservation projects, and habitat restoration efforts over the years and is among several critical conservation lands owned, protected, or managed by the Conservancy in and around the region, including the Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve in Kissimmee, Tiger Creek Preserve in Babson Park, Saddle Blanket Scrub Preserve in Frostproof, and Venus Flatwoods Preserve in Venus.

“The protection of lands such as Rafter T Ranch highlights the value of collaboration between governmental, non-governmental organizations and private landowners to achieve conservation on a meaningful scale,” said Temperince Morgan, executive director, The Nature Conservancy in Florida. “Ranchers and farmers can be great stewards of the land while maintaining their livelihoods, as the Wohls have demonstrated, and we can do so much more when we work together towards one common goal.”

The successful conservation is due to the strong collaboration and financial support of local, state and federal agencies including the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration Program (REPI), U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) Agricultural Land Easements (ALE), U.S. Air Force, Enterprise Florida, Central Florida Regional Planning Council, U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, Highlands County, and the Rafter T Ranch family led by Jimmy Wohl, committed to preserving the land for future generations.

“There is no single group of citizens more concerned with the future of our water and natural resources than farmers and ranchers. As cattle ranchers, we provide aquifer recharge, open green spaces, wildlife corridors and natural water filtration to help the local ecosystem,” said Wohl, owner of Rafter T Ranch. “While these processes were taken for granted when Florida’s population was 2.7 million in 1950, they are now most precious with a current population approaching 22 million and growing daily.”

The protection of Rafter T Ranch advances the collective conservation effort designated by the Avon Park Air Force Range (APAFR) Sentinel Landscape in which the property is located. Known for rich biodiversity and an abundance of private ranches within the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area, the 1.7 million acres is an area of high priority for improvement of water quality, quantity and storage capacity, outdoor recreation and education.

One of only seven Sentinel Landscapes Partnerships created by the USDA, DoD, and Department of the Interior (DOI) across the country, the program engages federal, state, and local governments, NGOs and private landowners, including those who helped conserve Rafter T, to work together to protect, manage, and restore nature at a landscape scale while also benefiting military readiness.

“The Avon Park Air Force Range Sentinel Landscape Partnership streamlines land protection efforts while leveraging available funding in support of agriculture, conservation, and military readiness. These efforts contribute to Florida’s economy, Everglades restoration, and National defense by sustaining agriculture, providing clean water, improving habitat connectivity, and ensuring military training can continue,” said Chad Allison, Sentinel Landscape Partnership coordinator, Central Florida Regional Planning Council.

The protection of Rafter T marks a first time alignment between the DoD’s REPI and NRCS’ ALE programs. Requirements, goals, and funds of each agency were combined to achieve the same conservation endeavor, resulting in outcomes that met needs for both agencies — conservation of agricultural land and water resources and strengthening the Air Force mission by protecting land around the high value military testing and training area.

“This partnership demonstrates what can be accomplished on a landscape scale through voluntary, private lands conservation. The project can be used as a model for agencies and organization to expand conservation and leverage funding to accomplish effective solutions,” said Rafael Vega, Florida State Conservationist (acting) for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

County working up triggers for automatic burn ban

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.