Dry conditions, steady winds make for perfect brushfire conditions

Lt. Jason Sellers battles a brush fire in the south end of Golden Gate in Naples on April 7, 2009. Officials said the fire was started by a campfire in the wooded area. No homes were threatened.

Photo by GREG KAHN, Staff // Buy this photo

Lt. Jason Sellers battles a brush fire in the south end of Golden Gate in Naples on April 7, 2009. Officials said the fire was started by a campfire in the wooded area. No homes were threatened.

Lt. Jason Sellers battles a brush fire in the South end of Golden Gate in Naples on April 7, 2009. Officials said the fire was started by a campfire in the wooded area. No homes were threatened. Greg Kahn/Staff

Photo by GREG KAHN // Buy this photo

Lt. Jason Sellers battles a brush fire in the South end of Golden Gate in Naples on April 7, 2009. Officials said the fire was started by a campfire in the wooded area. No homes were threatened. Greg Kahn/Staff

With brushfire season in full swing, San Carlos Park assistant fire Chief Raymond Delo has a message for careless smokers who flip their burning cigarette butts out of car windows: Stop.

“Let’s just say that during dry season, when there’s no lightning, somebody set the fire,” Delo said. “That could be people throwing their cigarettes out the window — which is illegal anyway, and they could be charged with arson if they’re caught — or it could be adults having a campfire or kids playing with fire. Ninety-nine percent of these fires are not natural until the storms with lightning come. They’re caused by individuals, either by accident or on purpose.”

Delo said the careless disposal of cigarette butts is most likely the cause for two recent fires his department had to battle.

“Cigarettes are a major cause,” he said. “Last Sunday, out on the Interstate, we responded to a brushfire about a quarter of a mile long, and that was probably caused by a cigarette tossed out the window. We also had one on Lee Boulevard that was most likely caused by a cigarette thrown out of the window. And with the wind we’ve been having lately, that only increases the problem.”

Conditions in south Lee County, Delo added, are particularly susceptible to brushfires this season.

“By all means, it’s been drier than usual,” he said. “People really need to be more careful this time of year.”

Bonita Springs fire spokeswoman Debbi Redfield echoed those sentiments.

“The conditions are bad, and they’ve been bad for the last several weeks,” she said. “With the high winds on a daily basis and the lack of rain, it makes the right mix for very dangerous brushfire conditions.”

Redfield said Tuesday’s cool weather didn’t help matters much.

“Think of humidity as moisture, like the dew on your windshield in the morning or the dew on the grass,” she said. “The lack of humidity is what prompts the meteorologists to issues ‘red-flag’ warnings. These conditions really increase the probability of having brushfires.”

The occasional lack of humidity and other somewhat unusual Southwest Florida weather patterns have jumpstarted the brushfire season this year, Redfield said.

“The brushfires started earlier this year due to the lack of rain and due to the two or three freezes we had,” she said. “Even if it’s not a hard freeze, the ice on the grass dries the brush out and makes it more susceptible to burn.”

Like Delo, Redfield cited the human factor as a major cause of brushfires.

“A lot of times, it’s just people being careless,” she said. “We’re not seeing very many thunderstorms, and very few, if any at all, contained any lightning. Once we get into the end of April and the beginning of May, lightning will be a big factor as the atmosphere heats up and the summer weather patterns take hold. We definitely need the rain, we just don’t need the lightning that accompanies the rain.”

Despite experiencing fewer brushfires in Bonita Springs so far this season, Redfield said her department has nonetheless been keeping busy.

“In Bonita Springs, we’re seeing a few less than in other parts of Lee and Collier counties, but we’ve been busy with mutual aid calls,” she said, citing a recent 800-acre brushfire between Golden Gate And Immokalee that her department helped fight. “If Collier County needs resources, they call us first, and we do the same with them if the fire is too big for us to handle. We call in our resources from Estero and San Carlos Park and from Collier County.”

Estero fire Chief Scott Vanderbrook, too, said this year’s brushfire season has been a tough one to handle.

“It’s definitely worse than normal in respect to the amount of brushfires we’ve responded to this year,” Vanderbrook said. “It’s been windy and dry, and the big thing this season is not to do any open burning or controlled burns. A lot of it is common sense — and though it sounds amazing to say — that doesn’t always work with some people.”

Redfield said there are simple steps that can be taken to lessen the risk of brushfires.

“There should be 30 feet of defensible space around people’s houses,” she said. “If you look at the area that’s the most prone to brushfires in Bonita Springs — San Carlos Park Estates — people don’t clear out their lots very well, and they’re basically building a house in the middle of the woods. Now is the time to clean up around the yard, clean up the dead brush and make sure that there are no leaves or pine needle on the roof or in the gutters.”

And carelessly handled cigarettes, Vanderbrook agreed, represent perhaps the biggest dangers during brushfire season.

“The potential for a problem is definitely there,” he said. “If you drive up and down the road and see how brown the grass is, it wouldn’t take much to get one going.”

Reach John Osborne at johnaosborne@hotmail.com.

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