It's mighty cold, and it's also fire season

Marjorie K. Rawlings barn in Cross Creek.

(State Photographic Archives)
Published: Thursday, January 7, 2010 at 7:22 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 7, 2010 at 7:22 p.m.

The National Weather Service has issued warnings for two seemingly opposite conditions this weekend. The forecast for Alachua, Marion and most other North Florida counties includes the extreme cold of hard overnight freezes and the extreme heat created by forest fires and wildfires.

"Actually, cold weather and the start of the wildfire season get to Florida at about the same time every year," Division of Forestry spokeswoman Ludie Bond said. "Freezing temperatures dry things out rapidly, leaving us with vegetation that may appear green but is actually quite dry, and it can ignite easily."

Bond said the winter months are also among the driest of the year, providing little moisture to discourage wildfires from growing once they have started. That is why foresters are hoping homeowners will take precautions similar to those that have been taken to protect the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home at the historic state park bearing the author's name in Cross Creek.

Park manager Valerie Rivers said she and her staff have tried to clear and mow a roughly 30-foot buffer around the house and other buildings on the property, where possible. The state also recently bought a small parcel of land north of the home and plowed a fire line to protect the home from that side. A county road provides a fire break on the east side of the home.

"We do several things, like keeping the fence lines clear," Rivers said. "We can grow more wood -- more trees -- but we can't grow another house like the one she (Rawlings) lived in and wrote in."

About a decade ago, a New Year's wildfire came within a half- to three-quarters of a mile of the home and threatened the property for about 12 hours. State and local officials briefly considered applying a specialized foam to the home to protect it.

The foam is applied to the exterior of homes once the windows and doors have been tightly closed. Once dried, the foam has been proven to protect structures from fires but can cause damage of other sorts to the wood and other building components, Rivers said.

"It's really a last resort, and we have not had to use it yet," Rivers said.

Jim Weimer, a biologist at Paynes Prairie State Preserve, is among the state employees who could be called in to help firefighters if the home were threatened. Weimer said the steps taken at the Rawlings house are so simple he cannot believe homeowners would not take them to protect themselves and their families.

"The irony is that it is really a pretty simple thing to do to make your house fire safe -- just clear the stuff away," Weimer said. "How simple is that? But for some reason, we can't seem to manage that, and maybe it's because we think it can't happen to us."

Weimer said that because the people of Florida bought the Rawlings home for everyone to be able to enjoy, state employees need to fight to protect the structure.

"But there aren't enough resources to protect everybody's home, so homeowners have to protect themselves -- to help themselves by creating defensible space around their homes," Weimer said.

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