MAXWELL:  One way or another, the woods will burn

6/24/1998 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


In 1994, I owned and lived in a house on 3.5 acres deep in the woods outside Bronson, a small town near Gainesville. My street, North Tulane Drive, was a 2-mile long lime rock rut slicing through sand hills covered with several varieties of moss-draped oak and slash pine, deep-green fern, palmetto, Florida rosemary and hundreds of wildflower species.

I returned here to check on the 5-acre pasture I still own, to see how vulnerable it is if the wildfires in nearby Alachua and Bradford counties move southward.

When I lived here, the area’s beauty would have delighted the most jaded member of the Audubon Society, I am sure. But then, as now, this subdivision was a volunteer department’s worst nightmare waiting to happen.

My nearest neighbor, rhythm and blues legend Bo Didley, lived about a mile away, and we often talked about the wonder of having these woods all to ourselves. Even as we patted ourselves on the back for living in the “middle of nowhere,” as we called it, we knew that we were one lightning strike, one lit cigarette butt or one spark from a barbecue grill away from an inferno.

All around our homes, decades’ worth of dead leaves, sticks, shrubs, grasses, pine needles and branches blanketed the ground beneath the trees and bushes. Scrub oak, some stands so thick that they were impassable, stretched for a mile.

Bo and I and our distant neighbors were living in a fuel tank waiting to ignite.

Occasionally, and to our relief, small fires would break out, burning some of the deadly fuel. Each spring, I would gather my water hoses and nozzles, for safety’s sake, and burn my lawn and the perimeter of underbrush. That was 1984.

Three years later, Bo and I were surrounded by dozens of mobile homes, some more than 20 years old. Our new neighbors were afraid of fires _ as they should have been.

But their fears unwittingly placed all of us in grave danger. Each time a small fire started, they would immediately call the fire department, which would call the forestry department, which would snuff out the flames long before they burned off much fuel.

As more and more people moved in, the place became more dangerous. Gone were the low-intensity blazes that had been common to the area in earlier times, when burnable material did not accumulate to dangerous levels.

When small fires did occur, North Central Florida residents rarely had to worry about the kind of conflagration that has consumed 60,000 acres in the state so far this year.

And matters will get worse before they get better, said Steve Linderman with Tall Timbers Research Station near Tallahassee, an organization well-known for fire ecology research.

Controlled burns, intentionally set fires, are necessary, he said. But the influx of new residents has forced fire officials to cut back on such burns. “We’re definitely faced with a challenge,” he said. “We have to keep letting them know that we have a need to burn.”

Another big problem, he said, is that thousands of acres are owned by timber companies, such as Georgia-Pacific and Rayonier, that, wanting to protect their trees at all costs, no longer burn but have turned to herbicides. Trees are their bottom line. Rayonier alone owns 30,000 acres in Union, Bradford and Alachua counties. It lost 2,000 acres to fire last week, and it does not want to lose any more, a spokesman said.

Forestry officials constantly preach that, like it or not, Florida’s woods should and will burn. Each new house built in areas that were once woods makes fire officials wary of controlled burns, thus letting more fuel pile up on the forest floor. But as they douse every flame and complain about controlled burns, residents had better prepare for more wildfires. Against their better judgment, officials, worried about liability entanglements, are giving in to the concerns of residents.

“You can’t have wildfires if you have a prescribed fire,” biologist Jim Stevenson said. “There’s no better insurance.”

Looking at my old house, I am amazed at the tons of dry material so close to it. The new owners covet their privacy and are willing to let the underbrush multiply and the petrified thatch mushroom. The only open space within a mile of them is my pasture.

Driving away, I count my blessings that I no longer live in an area that has been taken over by people who do not understand the relationship between the land and fire.