Wildfires are coming; Is your home ready?

OKEECHOBEE — A hurricane may or may not strike Florida in any given year, but according to Melissa Yunas, wildfire mitigation specialist and public information officer for the Florida Forest Service, a wildfire absolutely will. The National Fire Protection Association explains that when people build their homes in more rural areas, conditions are perfect for a wildfire to move from wildland to homes traveling via trees, bushes, pine needles, etc.

Senior Forest Ranger Gary Davenport shows off his fire fighting equipment. Photo by Cathy Womble.

Nature is beautiful, and it is understandable that people want to live out in the country.

“Privacy is often what people are after, and privacy is a great thing,” says Senior Forest Ranger Gary Davenport. “But, you can make your home safe from fires and still have privacy.”

According to the Ready, Set, Go Program (RSG), which was created by multiple agencies to educate the public on this problem, “each year, wild fires consume hundreds of homes nationally in the Wildland/Urban Interface (WUI).” Their studies have shown that simple steps taken by the homeowners could possibly have saved 80 percent of those homes.

In the event of a wildfire in our area, dispatchers Sally Joyner and Carla Richardson at the Florida Forest Service would be called. They would obtain all the information and relay it to the rangers. The station is staffed by four firefighters: Ranger Davenport and rangers Robert Smith, José Bautista and Chuck Mullin. Mr. Davenport explained that they work closely with the local fire department, but their area of expertise is the wildlands, and though the departments are cross-trained and work together, they would be the first responders to a wildfire. If the fire was encroaching on homes, it would be the job of the Forest Service to clear a safe path for the fire department to get their equipment in.

He explained they use a specially constructed bulldozer to clear away brush and debris the fire might consume. This bulldozer has to withstand temperatures of 270-280 degrees. It has a water-cooling system installed in case it catches fire. If this happens, the firefighter would get out and hose it down if it were safe to do so. Last year, one of the rangers was over run by fire and barely made it out. His dozer was destroyed. If they can clear a path of about 30 feet in front of the fire so there is no fuel for the fire to consume, the fire will usually die out.

They go in and try to make a circle around the fire using the bulldozers so the fire is contained within that circle. If they can do that, there is nowhere for the fire to go, and it will die.

Ms. Yunas explained the smoke is so thick while they are doing this that the men on the ground cannot see where they are going, so they have a pilot, Sanne Esque, who flies overhead in a Cessna 182. She guides them to the fires. Ranger Davenport stated that if it weren’t for her, he would be dead many times over. “We all love her. We would do anything for her,” he said. They also utilize a local helicopter pilot named Larry Davis. He cools down the fires using what is called a Bambi bucket until the firefighters can get there.

Ranger Davenport and Ms. Yunas are very concerned about the readiness of some of the homes in the area for the coming of peak fire season, which runs from the end of February to May or June. They explained that there are things you can do to make your home safer:

• Make sure all dead vegetation is removed at least 30 feet from your home.
• Clean leaves, pine needles and branches from roof and gutters.
• Cover all vent openings with a one-eighth-inch metal screen.
• Clean pine needles and leaves out from under mobile homes.
• Do not store combustible materials within 5 feet of your home.

The type of landscaping you choose for your yard is important, too. Some plants are more combustible than others. Ms. Yunas called palmettos “gasoline on a stick.” She explained that oak, yucca, dogwood and white oak are all low-flammability plants. Pine needles are highly flammable. She stated that in general, the broader the leaf, the less flammable the plant.

One of the many services provided by the Forest Service is a free wildfire readiness check. If you would like Mr. Davenport to come out and look at your home to see if it is safe, he would be more than happy to do that. He is also willing to answer any questions at any time.

One of the things he made very clear is this is his community. All of the people who work there live in Okeechobee. The last thing they want is to see a neighbor’s home burn down, not to mention the fact that fighting wildfires is very dangerous work, and he worries about his men. He considers them a family. “We want to go home, too,” he says. “Every year we have a wildfire. The steps we take today can make a difference.”

If you would like to schedule a home/yard inspection or just have a question you would like to ask, call 863-467-3221.

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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