Fire officials count on community awareness to fight wildfires

An aerial view of a burned-out section near Orange Lake where a wildfire recently destroyed thousands of acres.

Mike Robinett / Correspondent
Published: Tuesday, January 25, 2011 at 3:57 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 25, 2011 at 10:27 p.m.

A string of wildfires in eastern Alachua County this winter has been “too suspicious for it not to be arson,” said Harry Collins, assistant chief of operations for Alachua County Fire Rescue.

Over the past four weeks, more than 3,000 acres have burned in wildfires in eastern Alachua County, according to the Florida Division of Forestry.

Collins was among the state, county and local fire officials who met Tuesday morning to come up with plans to deal with the wildfire potential now before it becomes a crisis.

“We lived through the Waldo fire crisis in 1998,” Collins said. “We don’t want to repeat that.”

Fire officials came up with several ideas for trying to reduce the likelihood of wildfires, which burn an average of more than 200,000 acres in Florida each year.

The group decided to focus on three areas.

First, they decided to get more involved and help each other apply for grants from federal stimulus programs and from programs for small agencies. The grants can be used to acquire more specialized gear for fighting wildfires around homes.

Another idea the group wants to pursue is to post fliers giving residents a phone number to call and information about a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of a suspect in a wild land arson case.

Chief Jim Arnette of the Windsor Fire Department said his department will be putting up the posters near clusters of mailboxes in his district.

“Out our way, these fires seem to happen close to hunting season,” Arnette said. “There is an open road to a hunting club and it may have been somebody going in there while no one from the club was around and then burning out the underbrush to be able to see the animals while they are hunting.”

The third idea the firefighters want to pursue is one-to-one education of homeowners about ways to reduce the wildfire risk around their home.

Forestry officials and firefighters in Gilchrist and Taylor counties have already begun going door-to-door to talk with homeowners about fire safety, according to Jamie Rittenhouse, the forest area supervisor for Alachua County. He said most homeowners have been receptive when approached by firefighters.

Ron Mills, chief of Emergency Management for Gilchrist County, said the door-to-door stops in areas north of Bell have been productive because residents there apparently realize their neighborhoods are among the most susceptible to wildfires in the rural county.

“We are doing this to bring more knowledge about landscaping that can reduce the fuel load and so reduce their wildfire risk,” Mills said. “That is information that people are willing to listen to.”

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