Refuge sets burn areas

By Steve Estes

The potential prescribed burn season is underway for the National Key Deer Refuge, and officials there have two planned burn areas and are simply “waiting for the right circumstances,” said US Fish and Wildlife Service Burn Specialist John Wallace.

The refuge conducted no burns last year in the wake of a September 10, 2011 fire that got out of control and burned just over 100 acres on Big Pine when the burn was slated for 22 acres.

“Nobody should have ignited a burn in those conditions,” said Bob Ehrig, Big Pine. Ehrig was part of teams a couple of decades ago that conducted burns in this area.

And since then, Ehrig has pushed for stricter ignition standards.

The 2011 wildfire forced the evacuation of 421 homes in the Pine Heights/Pine Ridge subdivision of Big Pine located just west of the Blue Hole observation area. It also burned most of the area surrounding the Blue Hole, a favorite refuge spot for wildlife gazing.

Following that wildfire, the refuge agreed to change its ignition standards, but even those standards aren’t tough enough for him to spark a blaze, said Wallace.

“There will be no uncontrolled burns on my watch,” he said.

The potential burn areas for this year are in approximately the same general area though on the east side of Key Deer Blvd.

The refuge has delineated 11.6 acres in a 50- or 60-foot wide swath that begins just north of Watson on Key Deer and extends to Big Pine, then east to Koehn Road in the Koehn subdivision.

The second planned burn area is 8.3 acres north of Big Pine Street in that same 50- to 60-foot wide swath, extending north to just before the curve on Key Deer that leads to Port Pine Heights.

“The areas and the staff have been prepped and ready,” said Refuge Manager Nancy Finley. “When the right circumstances occur, we will try to give the neighborhood as much notice as possible.”

Finely said that notice would include releases to the local news media and the placement of signs before the burn area.

“Often we don’t get a four or five-day notice but we’ll give what we can,” said Finley.

There are other areas that will need burning in the near future, she said, but these are the only two tracts slated for this year.

She also said that there are no mechanical clearing efforts budgeted for this year, but if she can use local resources, or acquire nearby resources, they may attempt some mechanical clearing.

Mechanical clearing is not very cost effective, she said, due to the man hours necessary to cut and remove brush from the areas.

“What we hope to accomplish with mechanical clearing is to reduce fuel load in those areas where residential homes are too close to make burning safely a concern,” said Finley.

Under the new burn parameters, ignition cannot occur in temperatures above 95 degrees. Relative humidity must be greater than 50 percent and the wind must be less than eight miles per hour, however, it cannot be blowing from the west or northwest.

The area to be burned must have received more than a half inch of rainfall in the last 24 hours, more than three-quarter inches in the last two days and more than one inch in the last three days.

“And that still might not convince me to ignite,” said Wallace.

He said that fuel moisture is the prevailing factor for him. “Rain duration is more important than amount. Two inches of rain in a few hours isn’t as effective at controlling a burn as two inches of rain falling over a two-day period. The fuel will be more saturated in the latter case than the former and give us a lower, colder fire.”

Refuge standards at the time of the 2011 wildfire were for less than 50 percent humidity and winds up to 12 miles per hour. During that fire, officials reported a significant drop in relative humidity and a significant increase in wind speed with a directional shift that precipitated the burn going out of control.

Refuge, state Division of Forestry and Big Pine and Sugarloaf Fire Departments combined to control that blaze in 2011, stopping the fire at Miami Ave., just short of the first homes in the subdivision.

No property was lost and no injuries occurred to non-firefighting personnel.

Former Refuge Manager Anne Morkill had promised that future burns would include a door-to-door notification element for nearby homes, but Finley said she’s not sure she’ll continue that practice.

“We want to use a portable lighted traffic sign that we can use near the burn area, as well as the ground signs, to warn people of an impending burn,” she said.

Burn season generally runs through September, but if the conditions are right, “we’d like to be able to ignite at any time,” said Wallace.

“There was a great window in January this year where a burn would have been ideal but we weren’t prepped then. We want to stay prepped if we don’t get the planned units done this summer,” he said.

Anyone needing information about prescribed fires in their area can call Fire Specialist Dana Cohen at the refuge headquarters at 305-872-2239.

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