A portion of the 11,000 acre Weeki Wachee Preserve was decimated by fire last weekend and into Monday. First responders across multiple agencies worked long hours to bring the the fire under control.
Judith Tear, Florida Forestry Service, explained that a cold front which brought much lightning, but little rain most likely sparked the wildfire in Weeki Wachee preserve on Saturday evening April 8th. That wildfire spread over the next 36 hours to 1100 burned acres due to declining weather conditions on Sunday April 10. By Monday morning, crews from several agencies were able to achieve 75% containment on the fire that had consumed 1100 acres of brush. By Monday afternoon the fire was 90% contained. The timing of this wildfire coincided with Wildfire Awareness week as Ms. Tear also mentioned.
Deputy Fire Chief Kevin Carroll said that the fire originated about 200 yards behind the First Baptist Church in Hernando Beach and was spotted and called in by Hernando Beach Crime Watch.
Hernando County was not the only area in Florida affected by wildfires or brush fires during this time period. Drought conditions throughout Central Florida contributed to numerous fires in the region. A map of wildfires throughout Florida shows 27 Active Wildfires Over 100 Acres and 106 Total Active Wildfires on Monday April 10th. There were 23,827 Active Wildfire Acres with 68,705 Year to Date Wildfire Acres. Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency on April 11 due to the fire conditions in the state.
The Board of County Commissioners approved a county wide burn ban on Tuesday April 11th, 2017 that will be reassessed every seven days and is effective immediately until May 23, 2017. The ban includes any outdoor burning not regulated by the Florida Division of Forestry.
The Keetch-Gyram Drought Index (KBDI), designed to measure forest fire potential, ranges from 0 (very moist) to 800 (very dry). On April 10th, the KBDI average drought index for Hernando County was 518.
Deputy Fire Chief Carroll explained that in the last 17 years, Fire Services has only requested a burn ban 4 times. Chief Carroll stated that both Citrus and Pasco are also considering burn bans. Currently 7 other counties have burn bans.
In a recent meeting with the local division of the Florida Forest Service and community stakeholders, it was announced that this would be a higher than average year for brush fires. Since January, Hernando County Fire Rescue has responded to 34 brush fires, burning nearly 1,200 acres.
During the Weeki Wachee Preserve wildfire, crews worked day and night to contain the fire. On Sunday April 9th, a huey helicopter dounced fires with 320 gallons of water at a time from a bucket suspended below it. A US Forest Service Chinook dumped out 2800 gallons at once. Citrus, Pasco and Hernando Fire Rescues worked alongside the Withlacoochee Division of the Florida Forest Service. They relied heavily on back burning strategies to keep the fire contained on the east side of Shoal Line Blvd as well as away from powerlines. They employed numerous brush trucks and 4 bulldozers.
“As everyone was sleeping throughout the night, the entire sky was lit up with embers blowing all over Hernando Beach,” said Deputy Chief Carroll. He explained that units drove up and down the streets ensuring that roofs did not catch on fire from the embers.
At one point, the fire jumped across the continuation of Petit Lane that runs southeast along the border of the preserve which threatened some of the businesses along Shoal Line. They were able to contain the fire to the triangular piece of forested land bordered by the access road and Shoal Line.
Crews were able to establish a control line running through the middle of the preserve which fire crews will continue to monitor. Deputy Chief Carroll said that smoke will be visible for weeks to come.
The first responders received much support throughout the ordeal. Community organizations, residents and local businesses continuously supplied the 50 to 60 personnel at the scene with water and food.
Riverside Restaurant located in Weeki Wachee was one of the businesses serving the first responders. On Sunday they provided food and drinks for 30 or 40 people. On the first run they brought cold turkey sandwiches, a few cases of water, ice, and a case of soda. On the second run they served up smoked chicken and hand cut fries.
Mary Burnes, General Manager of Riverside Restaurant said, “We just want to tell them how much we appreciate them and thank them as much as we could." She also offered any of the first responders a free meal at the restaurant when they were on break.
It is great to see the community respond to this disaster by coming together and helping each other.