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Abadoned Homes "Rekindle" concerns about brushfires in Golden Gate Estates.

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avatarUdut, Kenneth -- on Jan. 3 2009, from Golden Gate Estates, Naples, FL
Founder of this Naples site of NeighborHelp Referrals.

Folks in Golden Gate Estates: Make sure your brush is 30 ft away from your home and other buildings!

What a difference a year makes.

One year ago, while the state was enduring an extended drought, fire officials in Southwest Florida were warning residents about the possibility of a long and intense brush fire season.

The 2008 fire season turned out to be quite average as far as fire seasons go, though an 800-acre blaze destroyed three homes in Golden Gate Estates in late May.

Coming off a summer of regular rains, officials said they are expecting a more normal fire season in 2009 that should be no worse than last year’s. But with more and more abandoned and foreclosed homes in Southwest Florida, officials say they are concerned that unkempt lawns and the buildup of excess vegetation could provide more fuel for fires that do erupt.

“Defensible space is only as good as your next-door neighbor in some cases,” Golden Gate fire spokesman Victor Hill said.

In terms of soil moisture, Southwest Florida is about average for early January, said Michael Weston, a senior forester with the Florida Division of Forestry.

“We’re not overly wet, not overly dry,” Weston said. “Looking at Collier County, closer to the coast Collier County is a lot wetter. As you get further inland, the Golden Gate Estates area, you’re dryer. You move up to Lee County, and southwest Lee County is actually our wettest area right now. Hendry County is our driest area down here for Southwest Florida.”

As of Tuesday, the mean soil moisture in Lee County was 448 on the Keetch Byram Drought Index, which measures soil moisture on a zero to 800 scale with higher numbers representing increased fire risk. Last year at this time, Lee County was close to 600 on the scale.

In Collier County, the mean soil moisture was 549 as of Tuesday, which is similar to where it was a year ago.

“Last year we were way under from a rainfall total standpoint,” Weston said.

Officials are hoping regular rain will keep the ground moist and fires at bay through the spring, which will allow them to do preventative work and prescribed burns to get ready for the season. Colder temperatures or heavy frost also have the potential to dry out and kill vegetation, leaving dead fuels for fire.

“We never tell people to breath easy,” Hill said.

Homeowners are encouraged to do their part to prevent fires and protect their homes and themselves, Hill said. Fire officials recommend that residents clean their roofs and maintain a 30-foot buffer between their homes and any dense vegetation.

Weston said he believes people took to heart fire prevention messages in 2008, and hopes they will continue to do so in 2009.

“We want people to get away from thinking that a fire truck is going to be able to show up,” he said. “That’s not always going to be the case.”

Also, with more foreclosed homes in Southwest Florida, Hill said it is not unreasonable to expect more properties not being maintained. He said people who live next to an abandoned home with an unkempt lawn should report it to code enforcement, and notify their local fire department.

“If you’re a firefighter and you’re standing in knee-deep to waist-deep grass,” Weston said, “that’s not a safe situation.”
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