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Wildlife Director fields questions at commission meeting

Published:   |   Updated: April 10, 2013 at 09:50 AM

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Last week, County Commission Chairman Dave Russell said he would have all parties present at Tuesday’s county commission meeting who were responsible for a recent controlled burn that ended up jumping the fire line and threatening property.

And although Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area Manager Jennifer Roberts said last week she was tasked with conducting the prescribed burn, Chris Wynn, regional director for Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission’s southwest region, attended Tuesday’s meeting to field questions from residents and commissioners.

“Hernando County is the northernmost county of my (12 county) area, and I don’t make it up here very often,” Wynn told commissioners with a projected image of a home surrounded by 30-foot flames on display. “And I’m looking at that picture, and that’s a scary thing to come home to, and it’s my understanding there were some helicopters.”

Planning and Zoning Commissioner Robert Widmar, who lives in Glen Lakes, provided public comment at the meeting, saying this is the third time in recent memory residents have seen helicopters dumping water buckets because prescribed burns didn’t go as planned.

“Today you walk into people’s homes and it still smells like smoke,” Widmar said. “As far as I know there was no communication either to the management in Glen Lakes, or either to the individuals in Glen Lakes that the control burn was to happen.”

The prescribed burn, more commonly referred to as a “controlled burn,” was conducted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in Chassahowitzka just west of Glen Lakes, where officials say approximately 50 homes were threatened at various times when the fire spread during the last hour of the burn.

There were no deaths, injuries or structural damages, according to Don Ruths, a wildlife mitigation specialist with the Withlacoochee Forestry Center.

Wynn said “a detailed prescription burn management plan” was in effect the day the intended 200-acre burn spread to more than 550 acres, with set weather parameters to operate within, as well as maps of the area with backup plans in case something went wrong.

Wynn said personnel also looked at relative humidity, dryness of fuel or grade A vegetation on the ground, as well as dispersion wind levels.

“Obviously, something happened that you didn’t plan,” Commissioner Diane Rowden asked.

“Correct,” Wynn said.

“What caused this to almost burn down that whole subdivision?” Rowden asked.

“I don’t have the answer to that,” Wynn said, adding that the investigation is open on the matter and that he’s limited in what he can say.

Wynn noted that there was another prescribed burn going on in the county at the same time the meeting was held.

“That’s a concern to me,” Rowden said. “If we don’t have answers to why this one got out of control, why would we do another one?”

Wynn said there’s been more than 400 fires in Hernando County, and that this figure can be broken down into thirds between lightning, arson and mistakes like throwing lit cigarettes or not adequately extinguishing camp fires.

“We average about 300 burns a year across the state, and that equates to 120,000 acres,” Wynn said. “There’s a lot of benefits to prescribed burning, and we fully intend to keep burning.”

Commissioners Wayne Dukes and Jim Adkins both have several decades of experience as firefighters and inquired into whether pressure to burn certain environments at certain times could pressure personnel and lead to mistakes.

“That’s certainly not going to drive a day-to-day decision,” Wynn said. “We try to operate in a window, and if one of those factors is outside the window we call the burn off.”

Adkins also asked Wynn if, during prescribed burns, the tonnage of fuel per acre is taken into account. Wynn said it was, and then Adkins recommended possibly burning 30-40 acres at a time, instead of more.

“You will confirm that controlled burns don’t burn trees, they burn underbrush,” Dukes said.

Rowden and Commissioner Nick Nicholson also recommended giving greater consideration to dry weather during burns.

(352) 544-5271

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