Avon Park brush fire burns 6,000 acres

HIGHLANDS COUNTY, Fla. -- A massive wildfire is burning near the Polk-Highlands County line. It’s impacting people across the Bay area.  You may have smelled the smoke or seen the haze.

It's not going away anytime soon. It’ll be burning throughout the weekend.

A military training exercise sparked the fire on the Avon Park Air Force Range on Wednesday and is still burning. 

Crews know it's causing problems beyond the range.  Firefighters hope they'll be able to keep the flames within about 8,000 acres on the property.  They’re slowly letting it burn up to fire lines to help control the smoke.  We’ve seen so many fires burning across the state, but something unusual these fire crews have to think about: the possibility of old, unexploded bombs on the range.

Wildland Fire Program Manager Dale Pfau is keeping a close eye on the flames burning thousands of acres of undeveloped land on the Avon Park Air Force Range.  “This is part of the fire that came off the range,” Pfau explains.  “We're letting it do its thing.  It's working its way up the road that we want it to,” Pfau says.

“It's right into an area that we call the buffer area outside of our impact areas,” says Air Force Environmental Flight Chief Brent Bonner.

USAF Director of Operations, Buck Maclaughlin says the fire started in one of the weapons impact areas during an air strike training.  He tells 10News while it's not a highly explosive area, and most of the time munitions are stable, it's something firefighters think about.

“There, we don’t want to be disturbing the ground with any kind of equipment.  We’ll do a lot of back burning or let it come out to us, where we can put in control lines.  We tend not to disturb the ground in the impact point,” says Pfau.

To help prevent the fires, the past month they've changed their military training at the range, because of the dry conditions.  “In times like this, we reduce certain incendiary devices, anything that may start a fire, such as tracer rounds,” says Bonner.

Bonner says they already burn one-third of their 106,000-acre property every year to clear out vegetation, because they know the impact a wildfire and smoke can have on neighbors around the Bay area.

“The smoke is an issue, and during the burnout we’ll space it over three days. So, we try to reduce that risk if you will by doing a slow burnout instead of doing it quickly.  It is a concern, and we apologize for the smoke.  It is part of what we do here,” says Bonner.

Because of the smoke in the area, crews say you need to be careful on the roads and protect your health.

Even someone who is healthy can get sick if there is enough smoke in the air.  It causes coughing, trouble breathing, burning eyes and a scratchy throat.  You're encouraged to stay inside and use the air conditioning if smoke's in your area.

It can also settle on the roads, and you're urged to go slow when visibility is low.

“I’m staying downtown and smelled smoke inside my hotel.  I was worried it was fire, but realized there are a lot of wildfires around the state,” says Ranell James, who is visiting St. Petersburg from Jacksonville.

Crews are trying to keep the fire out of a marshy area on the south side of the range, which would make the smoke even worse.  They hope to have the fire contained with less smoke by Sunday.

© 2017 WTSP-TV


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