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Dead vegetation post Ian increasing fire danger on Sanibel

Posted at 7:19 PM, Apr 27, 2023

SANIBEL, Fla. — Dead trees and branches litter the Sanibel landscape in the wake of Hurricane Ian. Fire officials are warning fire season may become more active due to the dead vegetation and overall dry conditions we have seen on Sanibel Island.

"There is a lot of built of fuel, dry property, dry public land, that we need to make sure we are keeping everybody safe," said Toni Westland, a Supervisory Refuge Ranger with Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

Fox 4 spoke with members of the Sanibel Prescribed Fire Task Force ahead of their public meeting on Thursday night, where they addressed the fire danger and the steps that they are taking to reduce that danger.

Those steps include planning to burn 430 acres of public land to reduce the fire risk and increase the health of natural habitats.

"We want to burn the different parts of the public land, safely, when we have the resources and the right conditions,” said Westland. “So, we do not have a lightning strike in the summer that causes a wildfire. So, we don't have some sort of human use happen that starts a fire."

Westland said they will conduct these burns if the right conditions are met.

“We could be in the middle of burning and if we come out of prescription, because the wind changes or something, we stop the burn."

While these burns are planned in areas that are known to be well-manicured ahead of Hurricane Ian, much of the rest of the island is not as fortunate.

Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation Wildlife and Habitat Management Director Chris Lechowicz says historically Sanibel was not the lush forest that many of us know it as. Wildfires naturally cleared the majority of the trees. Now without natural fire, trees have become abundant on the island. When Hurricane Ian struck Sanibel, the wind and storm surge littered the ground down trees and branches.

"Storm surge brought salt water over the top of the habitat, which a lot the native grasses are able to tolerate, but we have lost a lot of that,” said Lechowicz. “These trees we have everywhere were not able to tolerate it, so we have acres and acres of dead trees."

Now those dead and fallen trees could create a perfect firestorm if not cleared this Spring; or even the next few fire seasons.

“If a wildfire started it would be a very serious issue, just because of all the dead wood everywhere. You know, it would create a fire that is very intense, very hard to slow down.”

As for the prescribed burns that are planned, Westland says they are waiting for ideal conditions, but are hoping to get it done ahead of the rainy season.

“So, there is this timely area, which we have enough water on the ground, but we don't have too much water. And we haven't entered the lightning season with the rainy season.”

Sanibel Prescribed Fire Task Force says they would like to conduct the prescribed burns as soon as the conditions allow.

The rainy season in Southwest Florida typically starts in late May, early June. But that transitional period typically brings the highest risk of wildfires as daily thunderstorms return as cloud-to-ground lightning strikes can start fires, not just on Sanibel Island but across Southwest Florida.