In mid-March I was at work at the Myakka River District office of the Florida Forest Service when we got the call about brush fires in a residential area of Charlotte County. I quickly realized, “Oh gosh, it’s in South Gulf Cove,” and made for the scene. You see, South Gulf Cove is a recognized Firewise Communities/USA site, and a neighborhood I’d been working closely with for more than five years.
Almost as soon as the first call came in, we heard reports of fire starts in another, then another and another area in the community. While the state is still investigating the cause, I wanted to observe what was happening to homes in the area. Would the local efforts to reduce fuels and protect homes pay off?
There was swift and significant response to the fire from the Florida Forest Service as well as Charlotte and Sarasota County fire and law enforcement. Equipment including a helicopter for water drops was on scene, and law enforcement assisted with evacuation orders and road closures.
The fires started in heavily vegetated areas and ran into areas that had been modified by the Florida Forest Service two years before. The fire behavior changed dramatically when the fire line reached the mitigated areas, which helped firefighters on scene get it under control. It is my opinion that, if that area had not been mitigated earlier, homes would have been lost that day due to the heavy vegetation, very dry conditions, and strong winds.
From what I was able to observe, in the areas up close to the homes, the mitigation that was done around these homes allowed firefighters to get to the fire and contain it before it reached the homes. These homes had a minimum 30-foot defensible space and that was what really came into play in a couple of areas. Fire burned through many unoccupied, unmaintained lots. Vegetation on these lots ranged from six to eight feet in height, compared to the mitigated lots where the tallest plants were two to three feet in height.
Residents have reported relief that the fire was brought under control so quickly, but are looking for more ways to get Firewise work done, especially in the unoccupied lots that seem to have the heaviest load of vegetative fuel. With their local Firewise committee and partnership with state and local fire services, they can continue to make progress to make their community safer from this threat.