By Samantha Joseph
MARTIN COUNTY - Rain that gave the Florida Forest Service a break from fighting wildfires meant they could take a preemptive strike against a risk looming at the Martin County Airport.
For more than five years officials wanted to mow firebreaks and chop overgrown vegetation on a 100-acre parcel at Witham Field as part of a two-phase process to prevent forest fires there.
Wild vegetation has thrived in the area, with some palmettos reaching around the 10-foot mark, and posing a risk for sending flames climbing twice as high, officials said.
"That would be a huge fire," said Melissa Yunas, wildfire mitigation specialist for the Florida Forest Service's Okeechobee district, which serves Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River, Okeechobee, Highlands and Glades counties.
"That's why this is so important. It's kind of like a chess match. We know what areas are at risk, so we're doing everything we can and preparing in advance for wildfires."
Last year a small fire broke out on the parcel, but officials extinguished it quickly, thanks to assistance from the rain.
Five years ago, though, their job was not so easy when a larger blaze erupted and quickly tore through the crisp vegetation to make its way to the Kingswood Terrace residential community to the north of the parcel.
With winds mainly blowing from the southeast, flames typically travel toward the community and neighboring Monterey Road, with smoke and extreme conditions likely to lead to closures of the airport as well as Old Dixie and Federal highways, Ms. Yunas said.
"When the Florida Forest Service is not actively fighting wildfires, we are doing everything we can to prevent new wildfires from occurring," said Justin Dillon, senior forest ranger with the Florida Forest Service.
And officials said the airport area is prime for a spark, whether they initiate it or not, because fire is inevitable when natural areas become overgrown.
Once the Forest Service finishes phase one, it plans to take on the second part of the project in July, starting a burning cycle when the weather permits.
"We are trying to prevent flames and smoke from negatively impacting the businesses and communities that border the northeast side of the Martin County Airport," Mr. Dillon said.