Two Ocala residents chose to flee their home Monday night after U.S. Forest Service officials conducted a controlled fire to stop the spread of the 67-acre Connor Wildfire in the Ocala National Forest.
This technique, called a “burnout,” is used to regulate wildfires by burning surrounding vegetation and creating a boundary for the fire. U.S. Forest Service officials conducted the burnout in the western portion of the forest, southeast of Highway 314.
Although this method can successfully control a forest fire, it creates a heavy layer of smoke in the surrounding areas.
Don and Sherry LaRoche, who live a mile away from the burnout site, said the smoke emanating from the wildfire was so dense they left the area. They said they both have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) — a lung illness that blocks airflow — making it difficult to breath as smoke enveloped their house.
“This one here was the worst controlled burn I think I have ever seen,” said Don LaRoche, who has lived in the area since 1968. “The smoke was so heavy yesterday that we had to leave last night and go stay with friends in Summerfield just so we could breathe.”
He said rescue officials did not warn them of the burnout operation before it was conducted, and they left the area as the operation was ongoing Monday.
“Usually we get a phone call from the forestry telling us that there is going to be a burn because we had put in a request, that because of our lung condition, they let us know,” Sherry LaRoche said. “But nobody let us know anything or gave us a phone call.”
Although they chose to leave, authorities said residents were cooperative with the operation and they did not have to issue any evacuations in the area.
Dwight Snow, a U.S. Forest Service incident commander, said about 30 firefighters were on the ground extinguishing the fire’s remains with the support of two helicopters dropping water.
He said pilots also air-dropped a chemical retardant on bordering areas to ensure the fire could not spread past the burnout’s borders.
Because the chemical retardant eliminates the oxygen in the area its applied, pilots must be careful they don’t airdrop over swamplands.
Each chemical airdrop costs about $10,000, according to Snow. Although this may seem expensive, he said, he values the safety of firefighters above the operation’s expense.
“If I can justify mitigating risk for a firefighter, I’ll do it every time,” he said.
Snow said the public can expect a fire rescue presence in the forest for at least a week.
“Right now, the smoke is our biggest concern,” he said. “So we’re doing everything we can to extinguish all the smoke we can find.”