AVON PARK — A military training exercise may have sparked Wednesday night’s wildfire on the Avon Park Air Force Range, but putting it out is an exercise in patience on and off the range.
“We hope to have less impact with a slow burnout,” said Brent Bonner, APAFR environmental chief. “By Sunday, we should be 100 percent contained.”
That doesn’t mean the fire will have gone out. Bonner’s crews will still patrol fire perimeter, checking for flames jumping fire lines or roads, and backburning as needed. They don’t want to burn too much too fast and create smoke.
“The wind is blowing straight (west) toward Avon Park,” Bonner said.
Melissa Yunas, wildfire mitigation specialist with the Florida Forest Service, reported that as of 2 p.m. Thursday, the 6,770-acre fire was 50 percent contained, with hopes to have it 75 percent contained by the end of the day Friday. She also said a spot fire was seen at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, east of the main fire. Local crews with assistance from the Forest Service’s Okeechobee and Lakeland districts contained it to 270 acres.
However, on Thursday and Friday, a distinct haze still lingered over Avon Park, State Road 64 and on U.S. 27 from Avon Park to Frostproof. Residents and motorists are warned to expect it through the end of the weekend.
Range Operations Officer Charles “Buck” MacLaughlin said he encountered smoke Thursday on U.S. 27 south of Frostproof, but the gate of the Bombing Range was clear.
Dale Phau, fire program manager, said conditions are favorable to get smoke “up and out” over the weekend, before a weather front moves in next week with shifting winds that could fan the flames.
“We want to use the day with easterly constant wind,” Phau said. “It lets us build a plan.”
To contain the blaze, dubbed the Echo Springs fire, crews went into an 8,000-acre area with drip torches to backburn toward it, clearing fuel and using natural fire breaks when possible.
“We hardly ever use heavy equipment,” Phau said Thursday. “We try to use existing lines.”
Brush trucks would have a hard time reaching all the fire, water tankers and engines can’t traverse scrub, and bulldozers might set off hidden, unexploded ordnance, he said.
Phau and Bonner, with Grant Gifford of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, took observers into the area Thursday afternoon in two four-wheel-drive Ford F250s. The trucks lumbered down a sand wheel track through the scrub called Sandy Hill Road. They passed a John Deere tractor pulling a disc harrow. Gifford said it would dig into the mineral level of the soil to create a fire break.
The fire itself, little more than an edge of flame extending for miles, crunched and chewed through low brush and standing pines, occasionally licking flames 8 feet high. At one point, the breeze shifted, driving flames toward the trucks, and officials moved observers out, but kept an eye on the flames.
Bonner said crews would continue to patrol the perimeter for any escaping flames.
His division of range operations does controlled burns each year to manage wildlife habitat and clear the range for military operations. Florida’s fire-dependent ecology, if let alone, would burn itself over every three years, so between January through June each year — if weather favors it — the APAFR Environmental Flight does 90 days of controlled burns on 35,000 acres of the Range’s 106,000 acres.
“We try to mimic the natural fire regime of Florida as much as possible,” Bonner said.
This has not been a normal year. MacLaughlin said military operations have banned incendiary charges because of the drought. He’s cited a recent training exercise as the cause, but does not yet know if the spark came off equipment, ordnance or ammunition.
Phau said flares and tracer bullets can start fires, but the standing plan is to keep the fire in the immediate area where it started.
“The bigger picture is the installation boundary,” Phau said.
A fire in River Ranch came onto the Range, Phau said, but it fortunately only reached a “one-year rough” — an area that had been burned the previous year.
Bonner said, with the nearest off-base houses located 1-2 miles away, he plans to take his time with this fire and think about smoke and wildlife management.
He said the Range has only had one wildfire escape its fences in the last 15 years.
“That’s what we’re here to stop,” Bonner said.