Brush fire strikes on refuge land

By Steve Estes

Fire Departments from Big Pine to Sugarloaf, along with US Fish and Wildlife Service personnel and state Division of Forestry crews, were called in Tuesday evening to battle a brush fire adjacent to Wildwood Road on Big Pine.

The call went out just before 6 p.m. Crews had the fire under control by about 8 p.m. and mop up work was completed about two hours later.

The homes on Wildwood were evacuated due to safety concerns, but the fire burned off several acres in the National Key Deer Refuge, affecting only wooded areas.

Fire officials on the scene said the greatest danger was the high winds and low humidity of what has been one of the coldest nights this winter in the Keys.

According to Amy Pulley from DOF, the area that burned is one that hasn’t been part of a prescribed fire in many years so the vegetation was extremely dense, adding potential fuel load to the blaze.

This was the second brush fire of the year.

Although the cause of the fire is still under investigation officials did say Wednesday that that fire was caused by a human. The investigation continues.

Big Pine suffers a number of minor brush fires throughout the course of the year, and the majority of those are caused by humans. Many summertime fires are caused by youth who are using the wooded areas for nighttime parties or get togethers, while others throughout the course of the year are caused by homeless residents seeking heat or cooking over an open flame.

There are also small brush fires that start from the improper burning of yard waste.

Monroe County has no burning ordinance on the books right now. Work on one began a few years ago but the measure has lain dormant for a long time.

When there is no local ordinance, says Pulley, residents should resort to state regulations for burning.

The state requires a 25-foot setback from any combustible brush or your own house. Any open burning must be done at least 50 feet away from any paved public road and 150 feet away from any other occupied structure.

Residents can only burn yard waste, which the state defines as grass clippings, brush, leaves, tree limbs and palm fronds that result from normal yard maintenance.

The yard waste must have been generated on your property and can be no larger than an eight-foot diameter pile or fit inside an non-combustible container.

The fire can’t be lit before 9 a.m. Eastern time and must be extinguished at least one hour before sunset. The smoke from the burning may not cause a nuisance to surrounding properties and cannot be a hazard, which means burning poison wood is not advised.

Forestry personnel say that you musty clear the area surrounding the burn pile down to bare earth to prevent the fire from spreading, and any non-combustible containers must be covered with a wire mesh or other spark-arresting device to prevent sparks from escaping and starting fires elsewhere.

No household waste may be burned at any time. Burning should not occur on windy days. The fire may never be left unattended and you should always keep a water hose and/or shovel nearby to extinguish any additional blazes.

Smoke may not obstruct visibility on nearby roads and the fire must be completely out before you leave the area.

Burning may be conducted in commercial chimineas or fireplaces, but care must be used for escaping sparks and the height of the fire must be closely monitored.

“The use of common sense when using fireplaces for burning outdoors is important,” said Pulley. “If the fire is too high or too many sparks are escaping, put the flame out.”

Under state statutes, property owners may be liable for costs of fire suppression and damage of property to others if their fire escapes.

Recent rains are not necessarily a deterrent to accidental wildfires, particularly since Big Pine Key is still listed as one of the most fire prone of all the Lower Keys islands with a heavy fuel load in many of the wooded areas.

Anyone with questions about private burning should first contact the Everglades Forestry District, which serves Monroe County at 954-475-4120.

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