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Lehigh officials, others urge caution with wildfire flare-ups

April 19, 2017
By CHUCK BALLARO ( , Lehigh Acres Citizen

With Gov. Rick Scott declaring a statewide state of emergency following wildfires throughout the state, especially in Southwest Florida, local fire officials are urging homeowners and residents to take special care.

This past weekend saw two small fires spring up in Cape Coral, one on Southeast 24th Avenue, in the middle of town, and another north of Pine Island Road, near El Dorado Parkway - where the city is most susceptible - that burned about four acres.

In all, there have been 38 calls for grass or brush fires since the beginning of the year, most in March and April, according to Andrea Schuch, the Cape Coral Fire Department's spokeswoman.

Article Photos

Robert Dilallo

"We get calls for brush fires on an almost daily basis. They are usually small and are extinguished very quickly or they pop up in fields next to homes," she said. "It's easier to fight the grass fires than areas more heavily wooded."

Fire Chief Robert Dilallo, with the Lehigh Acres Fire Control and Rescue District, said the state of emergency allows him to call in more people for overtime if needed.

He said that could come in handy in the event of another large fire like the one it saw this weekend at Rush Avenue and West 16th Street, or when more than 400 acres burned in two separate fires a few weeks ago.

"It doesn't take much to start a fire. Out here we get a lot of cigarettes thrown out the window and four-wheelers driving through the brush and the mufflers tend to start fires," Dilallo said. "There are also the kids that start them."

In North Fort Myers, where firefighters battled a 70-acre fire in the Suncoast Estates area last week, there has been a lot of small fires.

North Fort Myers Fire Chief David Rice said the conditions have been conducive to fire and they have to respond to them at an above-average clip.

"I look at the humidity and the wind and I get a report every morning. It's very difficult to manage a fire with conditions like that," he said. "We get a lot of small fires and we get to them pretty quick before they turn into anything major."

Rice's crew, as well as other fire districts in Lee County and elsewhere, have teamed up to help quash as many fires as possible.

"We have good response procedures on a county level. If we have a brush fire at Prairie Pines, we can call on a strike team from another department to help extinguish the fire. We all work together and help each other," he said.

Samantha Quinn, wildlife mitigation specialist and spokesperson for the Florida Forest Service, said the calls they have gotten regarding wildfires is already approaching the number they had for all of 2016, which was unusually wet.

With almost another month of dry season remaining, the risk of brush fires will continue to increase, barring anything unforeseen.

As conditions are so dry and windy this year, wildfires have spread faster and become more intense.

"Wind tends to dry out everything and evaporates moisture and, if there's a fire, it spreads quickly. The wind pushes it so fast our firefighters have a hard time keeping up with it," she said, adding that this time of year almost anything can start a fire.

"If there's anything that could ignite a wildlife, use caution or don't do it at all," Quinn said. "Chains on the back of a vehicle can cause sparks, a cigarette butt out the window or an unattended campfire can cause a fire."

Another issue is access. Rice said some fires, such as those in thick brush, make it hard to get to.

"When we can't get to them, fire can spread quickly. That's what happened at the fire we just had. We didn't get to it quick enough to put it out," he said.

Dilallo said fires can "spot" several blocks at a time. If people are burning yard waste, the embers can travel several blocks and start a fire somewhere else, which his crews then need to jump on ASAP.

"We have fires every day that you don't hear about. Our policy during red flag days is we dump everything we have into these fires," he said. "We get on them quickly."

Quinn said officials are educating the community on making their homes safer and to make sure they are prepared in case they have to evacuate.

Schuch and Quinn suggested homeowners cut a 30-foot area around their home to decrease the urban/wildlife interface. People can cut back bushes, trees near power lines and eliminate fallen branches from the area.

Also, teach children not to play with fire or things that can cause fire. Schuch said fire is a tool that needs to be handled responsibly.

"If you don't know how to use it, you can get hurt very badly. That's why children need to be taught how to deal with fire. They think it's cool and there's a curiosity about it, but they need to know about it," she said.



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