A prescribed burn on 200 acres in Chassahowitzka that began Friday but became uncontrolled during the last hour of the burn to consume a total of 550 acres is 75 percent contained as of Saturday afternoon, said Wildlife Mitigation Specialist with the Withlacoochee Forestry Center Don Ruths.
The prescribed burn, more commonly referred to as a “controlled burn,” was conducted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission just west of Glen Lakes, where officials say approximately 50 homes were threatened at various times by the blaze, and there were unconfirmed reports of plastic screens melting off a lanai.
“What we’re doing is constantly going around the whole perimeter of the fire and wherever we notice any possible flame-ups or live flames, we’re extinguishing them,” Ruths said. “Right now it’s 75 percent contained because it’s burning up against a swamp area, and we can’t get in there with our equipment, but we’re keeping an eye on it, and it’s far enough back that it wouldn’t put any homes in danger.”
A helicopter provided by the forestry service used 14,750 gallons of water Friday, putting the flames out, Ruths said, or 59 buckets containing 250 gallons each run.
Local fire rescue crews were not assisting with the clean-up operations Saturday, Ruths said; however, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Department of Forestry have been in correspondence with Hernando County Fire Rescue groups, who are ready to respond again if needed.
There were no injuries or structural damages, Ruths said, and crews are expected to continue working to fully contain the fire for the next three days, and another week still before the fire is completely controlled, or extinguished.
“The biggest challenge would be if this afternoon it picks up and gets into the swamp area where we can’t get to,” Ruths said. “It will burn, and not threaten homes, but cause a smoke issue, so the swamp is a concern to us.”
Wetland areas near the swamp, when dried, can be fodder for a spreading fire.
“All that dried, dead vegetation back in there has accumulated over the years, which in turn creates the undergrowth brush vegetation, which creates a fire hazard that can spread from the undergrowth up into tree canopies,” Ruths said. “It can move rather rapidly from treetop to treetop.
“When that occurs the fire creates its own windstorm, and burns more rapidly, and forms more embers,” Ruths said. “The primary reason for loss of homes and structures is not from direct flame contact, but embers that fall into people’s roofs and gutters that have not been cleaned, or under their porches, so that’s the major concern, is to stop the embers from happening.”
Some residents had embers ignite portions of their yard Friday.
Ruths said the blaze did not disturb wildlife or habitats; an 8-foot alligator crawled out of one of the nearby canals and watched the activity surrounding the fire.
“They just move out, they just get out of there,” Ruths said. “After an area is burned it’s actually more habitable. There’s more open space for deer, and tortoise just go down in their burrows, and the fire goes right on top of them.”
Usually the decision to commence a burn happens early in the morning based on weather forecasts, Ruths said, and before a start burn or test flight happens, foresters receive another status weather update.
About 3-4 hours into a burn, weather and winds are to be watched closely, Ruths said, and about halfway through another weather forecast and current weather conditions report is sought.
“In this case, right at the very end when everything looked good, we had this unexpected wind shift, which doesn’t happen that frequently but it can happen,” Ruths said. “We lit a fire line about three miles back into the reserve, and that ran from north, to south, to north, so when the wind shifted it had some spot-overs, and quite a lengthy piece of burn line.”
The burn, which was supposed to have been finalized at 2 p.m., was 90 percent complete when another small burn northwest experienced the wind-shift, and the fire began spotting-over.
“Since those areas are hard to get through, by the time they tried to get their trucks down there to stop the spot-over it began to spread rapidly, so they couldn’t quite catch everything,” Ruths said. “Very smartly, they knew they would need help, and called us to assist. There was no delay in that. They didn’t spend unnecessary time trying to stop it themselves; they called right away.”