SEBRING — As if a weekend of brush fires had not been bad enough, Highlands County might face a burn ban if conditions don’t improve.
Public Safety Director Marc Bashoor told county commissioners on Tuesday that the National Weather Service has Highlands County currently under a “severe fire weather watch” after weeks of little to no precipitation and consistent breezy weather than can fan burning embers.
Also, the Florida Forest Service has the county listed as a high risk, surrounded by other “high-risk” areas of DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, and Hendry Counties, and “very-high risk” counties to the south, southwest and southeast.
“That is a little early for the season,” Bashoor said, “but if conditions don’t improve soon, you’ll likely see me come before you with a request for a burn ban, which would not affect agricultural (burning), but would affect residents and what-not.”
His fire crews had dealt with at least three brush fire incidents since the previous Thursday, and although they weren’t the biggest fires expected this year, that could change as quickly as wind direction.
“We implore with residents, please don’t burn right now if you don’t have to,” Bashoor added.
Miguel Nevarez, wildfire mitigation specialist with the Florida Forest Service, said the majority of the big fires right now are in Manatee County, averaging about three to five acres, but with danger of getting bigger.
“We haven’t had much rainfall at all,” Nevarez said of the Forestry Service’s Okeechobee District, currently averaging 500 on the 750 Keetch-Byram Drought Index.
He warned people not to think that Florida only has one “fire season,” which he called a misnomer.
“Actually, it’s all year long,” Nevarez said. “It’s just more prevalent in the hot months.”
The Forestry Service does prescribed burning on a two- to three-year cycle, but Florida’s fire-dependent ecology would burn down all vegetation in that time frame on its own, he said, if left to accumulate dead debris and get lit by lightning.
Burning returns nutrients to the “duff layer” — the undergrowth — and provides more new growth for the plants and animals.
Right now, he said, the majority of fires have been from people setting them, accidentally. One recent fire, he said, started when someone drove their car through a tall patch of grass where the hot catalytic converter and exhaust system set the grass on fire.
People running ATVs through the woods also need to make sure their exhaust has spark arresters, he said, to keep sparks from flying out the back onto dry debris.
Pile burning, as long as done according to regulations or under a Forestry permit can still cause a fire downrange, he said, when shifting wind brings burning embers to a dry area, anywhere from a few feet to hundreds of yards away.
Vegetation burn piles can only be eight feet or less wide, unless allowed to be larger under a permit. Burning can also be done in a non-combustible container with wire mesh over the top to stop embers from escaping.
The fire may only be ignited after 9 a.m. Eastern Time and extinguished one hour before sunset. It must be 25 feet or more from your home, woods, brush or other combustible structures; 50 feet or more from a paved public road, and 150 feet or more from other occupied buildings.
Dirt roads act as natural fire breaks, Nevarez said.