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Panhandle wildfire started by company respected among fellow foresters

In this June 25, 2018 photo, Mike Thornburg tries to salvage items from his mother's home after wildfires ravaged the neighborhood in Eastpoint, Fla. Adam Putnam, Florida's agriculture commissioner, said Wednesday, June 27, 2018, that a controlled burn by state contractors sparked a wildfire that destroyed 36 homes and burned more than 800 acres.

The Tallahassee company responsible for a controlled burn that turned into a wildfire, destroying 36 homes in the Panhandle, has contracted for years with state and federal agencies and is well known among Florida's small community of foresters, his counterparts say.

Doug Williams, owner of Wildlands Services (formerly Wildlands Fire Services), has a good reputation in the industry, said Don Curtis, a former assistant director at Florida's Division of Forestry who now owns The Forestry Company.

But Williams' fellow foresters are still wondering how his controlled burn could have gotten loose, a rare escape that destroyed part Eastpoint, a fishing village near the Apalachicola River.

Williams was contracted by the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to burn 480 acres in the nearby Apalachicola River Wildlife and Environmental Area on June 18.

Two days later, Williams submitted an invoice for $26,400 and indicated the operation was a success.

"All was OK," he wrote. "Received some rain Monday night."

But on June 24, the fire apparently picked up, scorching hundreds of acres on its way to Eastpoint. FWC officials have said Williams' controlled burn was the cause of the Limerock Wildfire, and the agency's inspector general has launched an investigation.

Williams was apparently unaware of the wildfire when contacted by the Tallahassee Democrat, and he has not responded to requests for comment since.

“Occasionally we get escapes, but nothing like this,” Williams told the paper.

Curtis and others others said that although state officials have said the controlled burn was the cause of the wildfire, it doesn't necessarily mean that Williams was reckless. Foresters describe Florida's fast-changing weather and unique environment as constant challenges.

"I know Mr. Williams, and he’s not just going to drive off and leave a fire," Curtis said.

"He could be 1 percent to blame," said Michael Dooner, president of Florida Forestry Association and owner of Southern Forestry. "In other words, he didn’t do 1 out of 100 things we might consider appropriate. So the level of blame, or irresponsibleness, if that’s a word, has yet to be determined."

Controlled, or prescribed, burns are used to clear away timber and brush and help prevent wildfires or limit their intensity. Forests make up nearly half of the state, and 14 percent of them, or 2.1 million acres, is burned each year.

Escaped burns are exceptionally rare. The state authorizes more than 88,000 burns on private and government-owned land per year, on average. Over the last 10 years, about 86 fires escape, according to Department of Agriculture spokesman Aaron Keller. That's 0.09 percent of all controlled burns.

Many of the burns are done by 1,725 certified burn managers like Williams, who are licensed by the state's Forest Service. The agency approves burns and can cite burn managers for various violations, like conducting a burn without authorization.

Keller could not say Tuesday whether Williams had received any citations over his career. Over the history of the certified burn manager program, only two people have had their certification revoked, according to Keller.

Foresters speculated that last month's wildfire could have been caused by a stump or other timber that was still burning by the time Williams and his crew left the scene.

Normally, foresters patrol the perimeter of their fires and conduct "mop-up" to make sure that the area is extinguished. The perimeter is usually made up of a road, a river or a bulldozed stretch of land 10 to 20 feet wide. But if a stump was still burning deep inside the fire zone, away from the perimeter, wind could have caught it and sent sparks flying, they said.

Escapes can also be caused by rapid wind shifts, but rarely do they become catastrophic. Often the worst that happens is that it blows smoke into dangerous areas like schools or roadways, foresters said.

"When you’re dealing with Mother Nature, it can be a moving target," Dooner said.