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Wildfires occur year-round in Florida, but tend to peak during the dry months from January through March. This year, dry conditions have officials concerned about a possible worse-than-normal season.

We tend to think of wildland fire as a West Coast problem — and in particular, as a California problem. But experts say the issue is nationwide, anyplace where development and housing coexist with naturally vegetated wild country. In reality, wildfire can pose a risk to homes and communities in a wide variety of locations along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

In Florida, the risk this year is very real. The state's heaviest wildfire season typically extends from mid-winter into late spring, when frost and dry weather provide an abundance of dead tinder. This year, according to a Herald-Tribune story, officials are warning that conditions are especially intense, and that wildfire might strike earlier, and harder, than normal.

South Florida faces a severe drought, which will probably grow worse before the rainy season (and the hurricane season) arrives in June. In Southern Florida, conditions are extremely dry. Several counties have banned outdoor fires, and "red flag" warnings have become commonplace in the past month. January saw 316 reported wildfires, charring 7,018 acres, according to the Florida Division of Forestry.

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Florida fire officials posted this map February 22 showing drought conditions that prevail in southern Florida. Pink and red indicate extreme drought, with an increased risk of wildfire.

Builders and developers have a major influence on wildfire risk to homes, according to experts. By laying out developments and homesites with cleared "defensible space," providing good access roads with easy turn-around spots and multiple avenues of escape, by supplying plenty of firefighting hydrants, and by using fire-resistant materials and construction details, the building industry can set up conditions where the natural occurrence of fire does not threaten the lives, safety, and property of homeowners. For more information, the Florida Division of Forestry offers a detailed manual called Wildfire Mitigation in Florida.

In the current economic environment, advice for builders and developers may have little practical significance. Very few homes, and almost no new developments, are underway this year in Florida. But on the other hand, the slowdown in development and building may in fact have increased the fire risk to communities. Stalled, incomplete neighborhoods throughout the state have become overgrown with uncontrolled vegetation, and many abandoned, un-maintained homes are now surrounded with waist-high sawgrass — a natural fuel that, in wild country, routinely burns off as part of the normal cycle of fire and regrowth. In the interface where housing touches the wilderness, that fuel now poses a risk to property. Abandoned structures, by the same token, pose a risk to neighboring buildings — a problem that may complicate the lives of firefighters in the months to come. Where funds are available, builders and developers may want to find ways to get involved in fire prevention — if only to secure the remaining value in their investments in land and buildings.

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Weathered wood trusses sit on a weedy lot at Lehigh Acres, Florida, near an unoccupied house. Lack of landscaping maintenance poses an increased fire risk in many Florida neighborhoods during this year's dry season, fire authorities report. Photo by Sharyn Brunner/Nightengale Photography, Flickr Photo

Gerry LaCavera, a Wildfire Mitigation Specialist at the Division of Forestry, says local and state fire officials are concerned about the possible risk posed by the wave of foreclosures. "All through south Florida, building has been very, very quick. And now, Lee County has had one of the highest foreclosure rates in the entire nation. So a lot of recently built homes are now empty, and the lots are just totally unmanaged." In better times, he said, well-maintained landscapes "actually served as little firebreaks around the homes. But now, if you have the longer brush and grass that goes right up to the homes, there's really no break in the fuel. The grasses and other fuels are acting as carriers of the fire close to the homes. So if the home is able to combust, it will certainly ignite much easier."

LaCavera says state officials are still trying to come up with a policy to address the problem. "We would like to include it in our mitigation program, where we do fuel reduction work and maintenance work. But it's a question of available personnel and available money to do that. It's not anything that we had budgeted for specifically, simply because we didn't know this problem was going to come up." And officials aren't even sure who should take responsibility: "Is it really something that is within our frame of reference that we should be doing," says LaCavera, "or is it something that the local counties or the local districts should be taking care of? Or is it the responsibility of the owner of these homes, namely the banks, the same as it would be the local homeowners', to take responsibility?" One possibility is that money from the new stimulus package could be directed to fire prevention; and the stimulus package also includes some funds for local governments to acquire and manage foreclosed properties in blighted areas. But so far, says LaCavera, "We still have no clue what's coming in the money, when it's coming, and what it's going to be covering."

Wildfire risk is severe in Florida, but that's not the only place where what experts call "wildland urban interface fire" is a concern. In fact, the same issues exist throughout the coastal regions of the United States. In New Jersey's Pine Barrens in May of 2007, a wildfire started by a military training exercise burned through 17,000 acres, forcing 6,000 residents to evacuate and destroying several houses. Similar "pine barrens" ecosystems, with thick stands of pitch pine and scrub oak, exist on Long Island, New York and on Cape Cod in Massachusetts; a major wildfire in the Long Island woodland closed highways and destroyed numerous structures in 1995.

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FEMA official Steve Kempf and Forest Service manager Bert Plante inspect a neighborhood damaged by wildfire on the edge of the Pine Barrens nature preserve in Ocean County, New Jersey, in May of 2007.

For more information on building safely in the wildland-urban interface, check out the FireWise program's website at www.firewise.org.