SEBRING — Fighting fires in rural Central Florida requires trucks, bulldozers and personnel, but most importantly, water. That’s in short supply these days.
Last month, the South Florida Water Management District issued a water shortage warning to 8.1 million residents in 16 counties, including Highlands County. Dry conditions will continue through this month, making wildfires throughout the southern range of Highlands County all the more likely, and more severe.
A wildfire that broke out in Glades County Saturday has grown to 5,000 acres. It started at 1:27 p.m. Saturday with 120 acres, said Melissa Yunas, wildfire mitigation specialist with the Florida Forest Service, Okeechobee District. With thick vegetation, high winds and low humidity, it took 10 bulldozers to circle the fire with a control line, she said.
However, high winds blew burning leaf litter as far as a quarter mile ahead of the main fire, creating spot fires. Yunas said that was just one of several drought factors that make fires more difficult, and potentially deadly.
Vegetation is extremely dry, so not only do fires start easier, they spread that much quicker. In addition, fire in drought rapidly preheats and dries out surrounding materials, Yunas said. Even if vegetation and other fuels don’t catch fire from a nearby blaze, they are far more likely to afterward.
Fires in drought also can also burn on two levels: the ground and the crown. Yunas said trees dry out without adequate rainfall. Treetops can catch fire independently of the grass and low bushes, Yunas said, and fire can move in a different speed and direction through the branches.
• No barriers
Firefighters can’t use natural barriers, like hammocks or marshes. They would typically have water, but they don’t right now, and they will help spread the fire.
• Spot fires
Wind will blow sparks ahead of the fire line in most cases, Yunas said. Wildland firefighters do long-range spotting to keep abreast of how much is burning ahead of the main fire. On Saturday, firefighters had to watch as far as a quarter mile — 440 yards — from the blaze.
“The main fire and anticipated fire ahead of them can merge and trap the firefighters,” Yunas said.
When asked if that was what happened on April 16, when a wildfire overtook a bulldozer on the northwest area of Okeechobee County, Yunas said no. In that case, the bulldozer was cutting a firebreak and got stuck, she said. Quick thinking by Okeechobee County firefighters saved the driver’s life and he wasn’t injured.
The bulldozer was lost, however, said Tim Elder, Okeechobee district manager for the Florida Forest Service: It cost $200,000 and was fully outfitted to fight fire. In a normal year, he might be able to absorb the loss, he said, but this has not been a normal year.
Helicopter turnaround time for aerial support has taken longer, Yunas said. Local water sources are often too dry, and helicopters have to fly farther for water.
The same holds true for fire department tankers, Yunas said. Rural areas don’t have pressurized fire hydrants. Local fire departments must truck in water. Usually tankers get filled up at dry hydrants: Pipes arranged with one end in a body of water and the other end on dry land for connection to a pumper truck. However, as previously stated, local water bodies have dried up. Tankers have to drive further, and that increases turnaround time.
Bulldozers and air tankers — at an airbase with hydrants or deep wells — don’t need water on site, but to help with long-range spot fires, ground crews need water, Yunas said.
In addition to episodic brush fires, the Okeechobee District has been dealing with two muck fires, the 828-acre Deer Run fire and adjacent 630-acre Green Buggy fire, both in Venus, which have required constant equipment, personnel and, of course, water.
A rancher’s well at the Deer Run site has provided some of the water needed to soak the ground and squelch the fire. However, Yunas has said, and still says now, that fire will likely burn until steady rains return.