Published: Oct 06, 2010 4:12 PM EDT
Updated: Oct 06, 2010 1:12 PM EDT

LEHIGH ACRES, Fla. - Lehigh Acres residents will be better protected from catastrophic wildfires thanks to an infusion of $250,000 awarded to the Caloosahatchee Forestry Center through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The money allows the Division of Forestry (DOF) to operate equipment and hire five contract workers for one year to reduce the density of vegetation around structures in Lehigh Acres. The workers use roller choppers and bulldozers to reduce overgrown vegetation such as saw palmetto that presents significant wildfire risks. Projects occur in the most wildfire prone neighborhoods with the highest concentrations of homes and other structures. The team started work October 4 and will work through June 2011.

"These efforts are vital to keep Lehigh residents safe and maximize our ability to respond when wildfires strike," Center Manager Hank Graham said. "We're grateful for the team and we intend to ensure it reduces wildfire risks in the area."

Lehigh Acres is exceptionally prone to wildfires because of the highly flammable vegetation that grows in the area. Homes and other structures built close to such vegetation require proper, defensible space to reduce the likelihood of wildfire damage. Vacant and undeveloped lots with overgrown vegetation pose risks to residents.

Caloosahatchee Forestry Center partnered with Lee County in 2008-09 to conduct similar work using emergency money from Lee County. The county paid for a team the Center managed under Florida Statute 590, which gives DOF authority to conduct mechanical vegetation removal or prescribed burning on public and private property in designed high-wildfire risk areas. The team cut more than 2,000 acres of vegetation around more than $100 million worth of structures. The Center received a state Excellence Award in Forest Protection for Wildfire Mitigation because of the team's success.

The infusion of ARRA funds will enable the Center to continue mechanical fuel reduction work. Center rangers will also conduct prescribed burns to maximize the number of neighborhoods protected.