AVON PARK — Despite a night of fighting, fire crews still had not contained an approximate 8,000-acre wildfire on the Avon Park Air Force Range by Thursday afternoon.
Florida Forest Service, which assisted the Avon Park Bombing Range Fire Department, reported that firefighting efforts had to contend with the complication of a potential thousands of unexploded ordnance in the woods. Bulldozers were not able to access parts of the fire, so fire strike teams back-burned the woods to create fire breaks.
As described by the Forest Service, a backfiring tactic is “fighting fire with fire.” Fire crews get ahead of the fire and string fire on unburnt vegetation. The two fires then burn toward each other and extinguish themselves as they compete for fuel and oxygen.
Brent Bonner, environmental chief at the range, said this fire will have a significant impact on area communities. “They are trying to backburn at times of day when smoke will go up and out, and not hang low in the air.”
The approximate 8,000-acre fire started at 5:35 p.m. Wednesday, Forest Service reports stated. It was on the Highlands/Polk County line, south of Arbuckle Lake and southeast of the Lake Wales Ridge State Forest. Vegetation on the range varies from piney flatwoods and scrub to open pastures.
Range Operations Officer Charles “Buck” MacLaughin, who holds a civilian post, said the 8,000-acre wildfire is part of the range’s approximate 100,000 acres. As of press time Thursday, the fire was actually 3,000-4,000 acres, according to Bonner. He said when the fire is totally contained, he expects it to cover 8,000-9,000 acres.
MacLaughlin said about 20 crew members are on the ground fighting the flames.
“Personnel are highly trained to ensure that additional wildfires will not start from the back burning,” he said.
The range has multiple fire breaks built in so once they can establish that the fire is contained within a certain area, they are relatively certain they can let it run and burn out without having to attack it directly, MacLaughlin said.
The fire is expected to be contained, if not burned out, by Sunday.
No cause has been determined, yet. Fire crews want to get the fire put out before going in to investigate, the Forest Service reports.
No structures were in danger and no evacuations were ordered. According to MacLaughlin, the nearest home is about a mile away. However, law enforcement and state highway officials have posted signs on U.S. 27 and State Road 64 warning of smoke on the highway.
The range does prescribed burns on alternating 35,000 acres each year to prevent wildfires, according to Bonner. Because of this, he explained, the range has little to no muck, thus no muck fires.
The Forest Service warns that, during this season of heavy wildfire activity, the combination of smoke and unforeseen changes in weather could seriously impair visibility on roadways. Drivers need to be cautious. The best decision would be not to drive in fog or smoke, but those who must drive in an emergency can take precautions to protect themselves and their passengers:
• Slow down
• Use windshield wipers in heavy fog
• Turn on low-beam headlights
• Report the hazards to 911
If fog or smoke becomes too thick to see well, pull all the way off the pavement, stop and only then turn on emergency flashers. For more detailed tips, visit www.FreshFromFlorida.com and search “Smoke Brochure.”