Espanola Fire, Now Over 5,000 Acres, Breaks Out Again On Three Sides; Calm Elsewhere
FlaglerLive | June 16, 2011
Thursday was a day of sharp contrasts in Flagler County’s wildfires: relative, deceptive quiet on most fronts, where smaller fires are concerned, but another day of break-outs at the Espanola fire, which started the day just under 5,000 acres, and finished it well over that mark.
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The last 24 hours have seen a surge of fires statewide, where some 75 fires have been added to a list totaling 422, with 51 of them greater than 100 acres. That will have significant impacts on Flagler County’s ability to fight fires should those new fires continue to draw resources away from the county in two ways: first, the Division of Forestry, which has gradually assumed command of most fires in Flagler, will be increasingly burdened with firefighting fronts, its resources thinned out to an increasing number of fires. Second, other counties who would usually help Flagler–as Flagler would help them–through mutual aid agreements would find themselves unable to send resources elsewhere, as they need them increasingly on their home grounds. That’s the case with Volusia County, whose fire situation is similar to Flagler’s.
As Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam told the Florida Cabinet today, the state’s drought index is as severe as it was in 1998, and it’s just the middle of June. Matters are worsening, not improving. In Florida as a whole, some 208,000 burning acres are federal land, and 116,000 are state acres, including private land. Aside from Espanola, two monster fires are burning to the north: the Honey Prairie-Okefenokee fire, which started in Georgia and has crossed into Baker County, west of Duvall. That fire is at the 200,000 acre mark. The Impassable Bay-Osceola fire, at the Columbia-Baker county line, is past 11,000 acres. In Putnam County, one new fire prompted an evacuation of several homes for a few hours, though no homes were destroyed and residents were able to return in late afternoon.
Thursday afternoon, following lightning strikes, three new fires broke out in northeast St. Johns County, promoting some evacuations there as well, also for only a few hours. No homes were destroyed.
The stepped-up evacuations elsewhere may presage the same in Flagler County, where officials may take a more aggressive approach, with sheriff’s deputies, in evacuations next time a fire threatens in a residential area.
The Espanola fire grew by 600 acres on Wednesday. It’s unclear yet by how many acres it grew today. But it grew, with breakouts on its north, south and east flanks, prompting air attacks form Flagler County Fire Flight, the National Guard’s Black Hawk helicopters and additional air tankers. County crews were not called to the fire, which is being handled by Division of Forestry personnel. And morning rains, including some hail in Flagler Beach, were too light to be a factor on the Espanola fire.
Division of Forestry and county officials say the fire is 30 to 40 percent contained. But a contained fire doesn’t mean much in current conditions, and the larger the fire, the less meaningful the containment designation: officials have been assigning a containment ratio to the Espanola fire since the day after it began. It has nevertheless grown in literal leaps, almost day after day, indifferent to fire lines after fire lines plowed around it. The fire cannot be put out by firefighters alone, even with air support. Fire officials concede that absent torrential rains, the Espanola fire will continue to grow. If it does, sooner or later it will threaten homes–and may make those homes difficult to defend, depending on the thickness of the vegetation around them and the speed at which the fire is engulfing them.
Flagler County Fire Chief Don petito explained the fluidity of the overall situation in a briefing this morning–and the fluidity of the terms contained and controlled.
“When we say it’s contained it means that we’ve been there and the tractors have plowed a line all the way around it keeping it contained to inside the lines,” Petito said. “The fires could could still be burning but it’s contained to that area inside the lines. We’ve had fires that have been contained for a very long time, and some of the ones that are really giving us some problems are the Dog Pen fire up north, the Yelvington fire and the Strickland fire. Those have been contained for quite some time. But what happens is the trees that are in the containment line, after the root system, will get burned out, the trees will fall, and those trees that don’t fall have leaves and pine needles that dried out from the heat. They will fall onto the hot ground and cause what we call re-burn. Then what happens is while a tree is burning because we weren’t watching it, because we were busy with the other fires, will throw an ember outside the line and that’s how that fire grows and gets bigger. Contained and out are two very different things and we’re very hesitant to call any of the fires out.”
Nevertheless, some fires remain on the list of 23 fires the county is battling even though they have clearly been put out. One example: the Espanola cemetery fire, across the street from that cemetery, which burned about a tenth of an acre on June 11, was immediately contained, controlled, and eventually put out, namely because firefighters from a nearby station got to it as soon as it was spotted.
Fire officials are also reluctant to remove fires from the active list if it’s going to send the wrong message to Tallahassee, which has its own fluid interpretation of terms. While the governor has declared a state of emergency, he has not released dollars to help replenish county coffers, which are being severely strained by overtime and other costs as firefighters maintain long shifts to cover both their regular duties (such as medical calls) and duty on the fire lines, or on standby to attack new fires as soon as they’re spotted. The success firefighters have had in actually keeping most fires either significantly contained or controlled (with the exception of Espanola, which is now handled exclusively by the Division of Forestry) has paradoxically kept the level of urgency from exploding into a crisis. Absent that crisis, local officials sense, the governor will not release state dollars.
Meanwhile, local resources are stretched thin.
“I know that Volusia County is calling us and asking for help, while we’re calling St. Johns County asking for help, St. Johns County is sending us stuff but we can’t send anything to Volusia, so we said it yesterday, it’s a fluid situation that changes minute by minute,” Petito said. “Crews remain on vigilant standby. We’re still doing 36 hours on, 36 hours off. We planned that when the red team came in, we were going to be able to send our people home, but there’s so many new additional starts each day, we’re going to remain on that schedule.”