Bob Dylan tells us that “It doesn’t take a weatherman to tell which way the wind is blowing.” Were that true for everyone! The staff at the Key Deer Refuge, particularly the controlled burn unit, has had its problems over the years determining which way the wind is blowing.
In September, 2011, Key Deer management planned a 18 acre controlled burn just north and west of the Blue Hole. During the burn, the wind shifted and over 100 acres was scorched. At one point, there was fear that Pine Heights subdivision might be engulfed as well and serious consideration was given to evacuation. There was insufficient staff to control the burn. Today as you drive along Key Deer Blvd., you will see a mile long forest of 25’ high black pine cadavers as a testimony to what happens when a controlled burn is no longer under control.
In a post mortem after the 2011 debacle, a lot of promises were made by the Key Deer Refuge about future controlled burn behavior. Few have been kept. For example, a promise was made to have a helicopter onsite to drop water if necessary. Last year, they said that a helicopter was too expensive.
Of course, there is no one left at the Refuge from the 2011 disaster. Is the new staff any more skilled than the old? Time will tell if today’s novices can do any better than their predecessors.
This time around the Refuge has 3 areas in their sights to be burned. One is behind the Winn-Dixie Shopping Center. It will be interesting to see what precautions center management will take to protect its property. Do you think that they will idly stand by and allow Refuge management to have its way without any proactive efforts?
The other two sites are further north straddling Key Deer Blvd. Each site is approximately 50 acres, well beyond the promise of no more than 10 acres in any controlled burn. Burn Unit B (love the euphemisms) is immediately north of the Eden Pines Colony Subdivision and just east of the Pine Heights subdivision. Directly across the road is Burn Unit A, which has not been burned in 45 years. Unit B, the area closest to housing, has not been torched in 15 years and the vegetation, read fuel load, is extremely dense. Drive by and look for yourself.
My reading of the geography is that there is no margin for error. Any change in wind speed or direction would be catastrophic to one or both subdivisions. As it is, the smoke inundation will be substantial. You had better have high quality air filtration as part of your air conditioning system if you live in the area.
On top of everything else, much like 2011, we have a rookie staff in charge. Who will be there to help, to provide expert advice? We all know that the West is ablaze and every available federal firefighter is long gone. As for the poorly paid ($27,000/yr.) 606 Florida State firefighters, approximately 500 have joined their federal brethren. I ask again: Who will be on Big Pine Key to help? And, how many local volunteer firemen will be available for a worst case scenario?
I am very pleased that I live in Port Pine Heights, 2 miles from the ignition point. Our friends who live in Eden Pines Colony can measure the distance between the flames and their homes in tens of feet. As I said, the margin for error is minuscule. Plus our lots are but 50’ wide. Should a perimeter home become engulfed in flames, there is nothing to stop the conflagration from spreading.
Dr. Larry Miller
Big Pine Key