Forest fires across state not enough to raise eyebrows, officials still taking precautions

By Abby Rinaldi, Staff Writer
On April 18, 2017

SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

Forest fires are currently sweeping the state of Florida, more so than Hillsborough County fire services have seen in recent years, but not at a rate too out of the ordinary.

Maps from the Florida Forest Service (FFS) show thousands of acres of Florida forests burning every day. The fires are leaving no portion of the state untouched, hitting the corners of the panhandle all the way down to the southern tip of the state.

The phenomenon has made headlines, and Hillsborough Fire Marshal Chief Tammy Zurla said Hillsborough County is taking precautions, monitoring fires that come up and keeping in contact with agencies in Florida that deal with forest fires, such as the FSS.

The forest fires that have popped up in the county aren’t the huge ones Central Florida and more northern areas of the state are seeing, Zurla said.

“Ours have been a little bit smaller and, thank goodness, easier to contain,” she said.

However, the trend isn’t completely out of the ordinary. In fact, according to Gordon Fox, a professor in the department of integrated biology, Florida is a fire-prone state, as it is also quite drought prone.

“It doesn’t happen every single year but it’s a normal occurrence,” he said.

Some of the general causes of forest fires, according to Zurla, include lightning striking dry brush and other natural incidents as well as human interaction with the environment, such as discarding cigarette butts, parking a hot car on dry grass and even reflective objects like cans in someone’s lawn.

“You really don’t think about it,” she said. “It’s just everyday trash, but something that seemingly insignificant can cause dry brush to ignite.”

Forest fires are not an isolated rural problem. Zurla said there is a possibility of a fire in an urban area as well.

“Right now, anywhere where you have dry brush, it can happen,” she said. “It’s just going to depend, the magnitude and what kind of things are involved, whether it’s just brush or acreage, or then we start talking structures that are in the area. Homes, businesses. Honestly, that’s the kind of thing that can happen anywhere right about now.”

Prevention, she said, is key. Property owners can make sure to keep brush cleared and reminds residents of Hillsborough County that there is no open burning in the county, meaning burning trash or brush or other things, even for those who own large plots of land, is not allowed. Zurla stressed that property owners and citizens of the county are the first line of defense.

“We just ask that they help us help them,” she said. “… To prevent these things from happening helps us. So, we’ll be there. When it happens, we’re going to be there, but anything they can do to help prevent it helps us more than you can imagine.”

The forest fires that come through Florida regularly play a large role in the state's environment by adding nutrients to soil and contributing to the continued existence of populations of plant life, Fox said, which can create an interesting dynamic when it comes to urban development.

“The fire itself is a natural occurrence, but we have created a setting for it which is not natural and which really magnifies the danger in the long run,” Fox said.

Fire suppression, for fear of the fires destroying large quantities of land or encroaching on urban or agricultural areas, can lead to problems when the fires eventually occur anyways, according to Fox.

“The problem is, the longer you suppress fires, when they do occur, they often are much more problematic because you have much more fuel on the ground so they’re sometimes much more intense and also because some of the fires occur in closer proximity to people’s houses or other kinds of buildings,” he said. “When it’s been awhile since there’s been a fire then people have the tendency to think that fires aren’t a common and normal occurrence here, and they are. They’re just like hurricanes in that way. You can’t wish them away.”

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