First-hand, detailed accounts of home survival during wildfire are difficult to come by. Today’s blog post documenting just such a success story comes to us courtesy of Todd Chlanda, wildfire mitigation specialist with the Florida Forest Service in the Lakeland District. Todd has also served as a regional Firewise advisor for NFPA and adjunct instructor on wildfire mitigation training. Below is his article:
I’m sure there are some non-believers about Firewise out there. But, I can tell you that the people who live in Indian Lake Estates, Florida sure believe in the program! Indian Lake Estates covers approximately 6,800 acres of land and has a population of around 2,275. Almost half of the acres are covered in forest, making it a true Urban Interface with 650 structures in the community.
Last spring, Florida saw dry conditions and wildfires that they hadn’t seen in the last 12 years. With the dry conditions, the Florida Forest Service cut off all agricultural burning authorizations in early January 2017. Conditions were extremely dry and the Florida Forest Service, Lakeland District had been running small fires since the middle of January.
It was February 15, 2017, around 11:00 am, and the call came in for a small wildfire off County Road 630 in southeast Polk County. The temperature was 78 degrees and the winds were out of the west at 23 mph with a relative humidity of 60%. The small fire was wind driven and quickly became a large fire that jumped to both sides of County Road 630. Indian Lake Estates and an area of hunting camps called River Ranch were being threatened. Within an hour of the report of the fire, a mandatory evacuation of Indian Lake Estates and homes along County Road 630 was ordered. By 4:00 pm, approximately 2,000 acres had burned and several residential structures were lost along the roadway. At 9:30 the next morning, the fire was approximately 4,000 acres in size and the winds had shifted. The fire was burning in areas that hadn’t seen a fire in almost 50 years. This fire was not 100% contained until February 24, 2017, with a total of almost 6,000 acres consumed, 12 residential structures and 130 outbuildings destroyed. None of the residential structures lost were within the Indian Lake Estates boundaries even though wildfire had threatened homes in the southern portion of the development.
If that wasn’t enough for the community of Indian Lake Estates, two months after the CR 630 Fire, they were once again threatened by a major wildfire. This fire, dubbed the Red Grange Fire, would burn 480 acres directly through the middle of the community, threatening 50 homes and 24 outbuildings. The fire destroyed one outbuilding and the community maintenance barn. Again, mandatory evacuations were in place and for the second fire in a row, no residential structures within Indian Lake Estates were destroyed.
Were the homeowners in Indian Lake Estates lucky? I don’t think so. Indian Lake Estates had become a recognized Firewise USA® site in 2010. With personnel changes, Indian Lake Estates let their recognition lapse in 2015. But, the culture that the homeowners in Indian Lake Estates had established while becoming a recognized community and every year after, saved the majority of homes during both fires. Yes, the local fire departments and the Florida Forest Service protected homes, but the volume and speed of the wildfire far outweighed the available equipment and personnel available to protect every structure. The preparation homeowners had done in the Home Ignition Zone improved their homes’ survivability and it worked. Homeowners created safe areas around each home and had taken safety measures before the smoke was in the air. Only a few homes suffered minor, cosmetic damage. The community of Indian Lake Estates had been tested by two major wildfires in two months and the homes survived.
Indian Lake Estates is actively pursuing their Firewise USA® recognition again. They are in the process of rewriting and updating their plan. The Florida Forest Service is planning a property walk through this summer and assisting with the community’s Firewise Day. Indian Lake Estates should obtain recognition, once again, this year.
Many thanks to Todd Chlanda and the Florida Forest Service for this article and for permission to use the photos and images included in this blog. From top, a view of the Country Road 630 Fire from the incident command post at the Indian Lake Estates clubhouse; map of County Road 630 Fire showing point of origin and spread; an example of an undefended but mitigated home that survived in Indian Lake Estates; aerial view of The River Ranch, a hunting camp where non-residential structures were destroyed; map of Red Grange Fire showing point of origin and spread.