GOLDEN GATE — Last year, Diane Haynes opened up her home to help frightened friends who were fleeing the massive, 800-acre wildfire that destroyed three houses in Golden Gate Estates.
This year, Haynes is hoping to help the entire community well before the first hint of flames even appears.
“I have friends in Golden Gates Estates and I sell homes there, as well,” said Haynes, a real estate agent who was among the scores of concerned citizens who turned out Thursday night for an emergency wildfire workshop at the University of Florida’s County Extension Office on Immokalee Road. “I want to help my clients and my friends by sharing whatever information I learn here tonight.”
Spearheaded by Collier County Commissioner Jim Coletta, the workshop’s aim was to educate the public on the dangers of wildfires as state and local officials gear-up for what many fear will be one of the most-active seasons on record.
“I’ve been organizing one of these workshops every year for the past seven years to brief the public on the extensive danger of wildfires,” Coletta said. “It’s inevitable that one of these years, all the conditions will be perfect for a fire that burns block-by-block. There will be a freeze followed by a cold front with no rain and 34-mph winds. It’s going to catch up with us eventually.”
To prepare for that eventuality, Coletta and fire officials are hard at work on an ongoing wildfire-protection plan that will “take a year or two to complete.”
“We want to have the preventative measures in place so that people are able to protect their lives and homes,” Coletta said. “That’s what we’re working toward tonight.”
Mike Weston is a senior forester with the Florida Division of Forestry. Weston said Golden Gate Estates is particularly susceptible to the dangers of wildfires.
“In Southwest Florida, Golden Gate Estates is among the top fire threats,” Weston said. “As opposed to Naples proper, people are living in the woods. To combat that, we want to provide a link – from the 82-year-old grandmother to the County Commissioners to the fire chiefs – to make sure that they’re safe and to make sure that they know what they can do to lessen their risks.”
Weston said a 30-foot clearance around homes and other structures is one of the most important steps people can take.
“During a wildfire, houses with a 30-foot clearance have twice the survival rate of those that don’t,” Weston said. “It allows firefighters to get in to protect their homes, and there’s less material to burn.”
Weston said 80 percent of the fires his agency fights involve people or houses.
“During last year’s wildfire at Golden Gate Estates, there were 60-foot flames involved,” he said. “This year, with the conditions as dry as they are, there’s a huge potential for something even worse. Our goal is to have wildfires that are as boring as prescribed fires.”
Ecological consultant Mike Ramsey was on-hand Thursday night to lend his expertise. Ramsey echoed and expanded on Weston’s fears.
“The focus of tonight’s meeting is to raise awareness about the dangers of wildfires,” Ramsey said. “This year, wildfire conditions are even worse than they were last year. The conditions are drier, there’s less rain and we’ve had more freezes. Once a wildfire starts and gets past a certain size, there’s no human or machine on earth that can put it out, and we’re not expecting any rain until June or July. The best preventative action we can take is to not let the fire start in the first place.”
Jennie and H.L. Gasperson of Golden Gate Estates said last year’s wildfire hit a little too close to home for them.
“We want to be educated on what we can do to be prepared,” Jennie Gasperson said. “We want to be able to prevent the wildfire from spreading if we can.”
E-mail John Osborne at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Protecting your home
* Trim lower branches up to 10 feet on tall trees, remove vines from trees, and keep shrubbery away from pine trees so that a fire on the ground can’t climb up these fuel ladders to the treetops.
* Landscape your yard to make it difficult for fire to spread to your house. Use shrub islands or patches of perennials rather that continuous beds of plantings. Thin trees so branches do not touch each other. Remove shrubs and dead vegetation within five feet of your house.
* Keep combustible items such as woodpiles, compost piles, gas grills, gas cans and propane tanks at least 30 feet away from your house. Clear away dead vegetation, pine needles and branches.
* Use mowed grass, stone walkways and mulched plantings in your landscape. Although mulch helps retain soil moisture, it must be kept moist or it can become a fuel source. Do not use thick, combustible mulch near your home’s foundation or other wood structures.
* Keep large, leafy, hardwood trees in your yard, particularly on the east and west sides of your house. Their shade is important to cool your house, and the flat leaves trap moisture on the ground. Large pine trees also provide good shade. Trim lower branches and rake up pine needles near any structures.
* Remove flammable plants, such as saw palmetto, wax myrtle, yaupon holly, red cedar and gallberry within 30 feet of your home.
SOURCE: University of Florida, IFAS Extension