When Pat Abernathy took out her dogs for a walk this morning in Plantation Bay, at the south end of Flagler County, she got an uncomfortable reminder of past wildfires. “The smoke was very thick and you could actually see it in the air,” Abernathy said. “That’s what gave me real pause, ‘Oh my god, I have to find out about this.’” She’d smelled and seen the same sort of smoke back in 2011, when the Espanola fire consumed more than 5,000 acres to the west, and exhausted local firefighters.
Abernathy was not alone. The county’s 911 center was flooded with so many calls, Flagler County Fire Chief Don Petito said, that he sent firefighters crisscrossing the county to find out if anything was burning–along Old Kings Road, County Road 304, the Mondex, or Daytona North, which had its own unsettling wildfire a few weeks ago. The investigations turned up nothing.
So Petito sent up Flagler County Fire Flight for further investigation. As it turned out, the smoke that’s been wafting over the county is coming from Crescent City in Putnam County, the so-called Union Camp Fire, which started last night as a 75-acre fire. It was then intentionally expanded by firefighters. “They did a 215-acre burnout last night,” the Florida Forest Service’s Julie Allen said late this morning. The burn-out was necessary to incinerate many patches and pockets of green within the lines firefighters plowed. “When they did that burnout, of course now we have a west wind, all that smoke is pulling into Volusia and Flagler County.”
But Abernathy and residents at large are also right to be cautious: Flagler County is under a Red Flag Warning from noon to 8 p.m. today, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Weather Service.
NOAA’s Ben Nelson this morning sent out the following alert: “Dangerous fire weather conditions are expected once again today, as southwesterly winds become breezy by the late morning hours and continue through the early evening. Sustained speeds will increase to 15-20 mph by the early afternoon hours, with occasional gusts up to 25 mph expected. Breezy winds, in combination with a long duration of critically low relative humidity and high ERC (low fuel moisture) levels, will create Red Flag Conditions from around Noon through 8 PM across most of northeast and north central Florida, generally for locations east of a line from Lake City to Ocala.”
The map Nelson included (see above, right) includes all of Flagler County.
Humidity is expected to be in the 25 to 28 percent range. “Fires that develop will have the potential to rapidly spread under these conditions,” the warning notes.
To that end, Palm Coast and Flagler County firefighters are on heightened alert and have added crews for the weekend, Petito said.
“We’ve got Fire Flight doing fires only now,” Petito said–no medical calls, no police calls. “They have the water bucket attached, ready to go, so if we do get something we’ll attack it really quick, keep it small. The bucket is going to remain attached.”
Same thing with personnel, which will immediately go into action at any hint of danger. That’s also why residents are likely to see fire trucks rushing and blaring toward one destination or another: departments are not taking chances.
The good news: “We have no active fires in our county,” Petito said, even though, officially, three of the 17 fires currently active in the Forest Services’s three-county district (Flagler, Volusia and St. Johns) are in Flagler County. But those are actually past fires that are 100 percent contained, and may be smoking here and there, under the monitoring eyes of firefighters, but not posing any serious danger. Still, that’s where flare-ups are also possible.
As for the Florida Forest Service, its crews are working six days a week, with just one day off right now. “Two young fellows graduated from basic fire control training academy Tuesday, they’re already on the line, fire ready,” Allen said.
Saturday, conditions may become unsettled for other reasons. The National Weather Center cautions: “Breezy conditions will continue on Saturday as a cold front approaches our region from the west. Southwest winds of 15-20 mph will develop shortly after sunrise as showers and thunderstorms begin to overspread our region from the west. The Storm Prediction Center has placed much of our region within a marginal risk for severe thunderstorm development on Saturday. Any isolated severe thunderstorms that develop will be capable of producing wind gusts up to 60 mph along with hail and frequent cloud to ground lightning strikes. Rainfall amounts on Saturday are expected to be in the one quarter to one half inch range, with locally heavier amounts possible.”