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Big Stand Against Espanola Fire at Threatened FPL Powerlines In Hopes of Halting Blaze

| June 17, 2011

An Aero Union tanker driops 3,000 gallons of retardant on the woodline along the FPL powerlines Friday afternoon, one of 11 such runs. Click on the image for larger view. (© FlaglerLive)

[An image gallery of the battle at the power lines is below the text]

Alert: At 6 p.m. Friday State Road 100 at the Flagler-Putnam county line was closed to traffic because of fire in the area.

Consider it something like a last stand, or close to it: The Division of Forestry is digging trench-like plow lines, raining retardant and preparing to throw its might against the Espanola fire’s northeast front as it approaches Florida Power and Light’s high-power transmission lines, which cut through the county there. The fire has been gaining toward those lines. It ran in that direction, as well as two other directions, on Thursday, for a combined gain of 714 acres, on top of the previous day’s gains of 600 acres. The fire was officially put at 5,047 acres Friday morning, but was likely closer to 5,500 acres, based on previous days’ burns.

The battle at the power lines will be critical for two reasons: First, the power from the 500 kilovolt lines, which transmit power from FPL power plants to substations along the way, does supply customers in Flagler County, FPL spokesman Mayco Villafana said Friday. Should the lines be downed by the fire, customers will lose power. How many is unclear at the moment. But FPL has contingency plans, including plans with other utilities, to possibly balance out the load and keep electricity flowing to customers until the power lines are repaired.

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The second reason the Division of Forestry wants to do battle at the power lines may be even more critical: the right-of-way is cleared of trees. Although it’s heavy with brush, it’s easily accessible by tractors. There’s a utility road along part of the way. The power lines provide a good boundary at which to law down resources and fire lines in hopes of actually stopping the fire for good, at least in that direction. If the Division of Forestry is successful there, it would be a significant victory on that side of the fire. If it isn’t, it would be a critical defeat, because the forest on the other side of the power lines is raw pine. It has just been doused in herbicide (a few weeks ago), which dries out the underbrush and turns it to tinder. Should the fire jump that way, it has a potential of running fast and furious—and there may be nothing, other than heavy, continuous rains, to stop it from heaving toward U.S. 1, and more inhabited regions. The fire is currently about 6 miles from Palm Coast.

With that in mind, the zone along the power lines on Friday was (and remains) like a mobilized war zones, with bulldozers plowing the underbrush along the right-of way, turning vegetation into loamy sand. To the west of the lines, where the fire has been burning in spots, plow lines have been run almost everywhere you look, even through young pine shoots, in hopes of slowing down whatever fire might make it there. The slower the fire, the more firefighters will be able to control it as it approaches the power lines.

And all afternoon Friday, two huge tankers dropped almost a dozen loads of bright orange-colored retardant on the wood-line along the western flank of the powerlines, so that by the time the fire does reach those woods (itself a near certainty) it will be more controlled, giving firefighters a better chance of fighting it.

The Lockheed P-3A turbo-prop tankers, which belong to California-based Aero Union Corp., are part of a fleet of eight such planes contracted to the United States Forest Service for firefighting duty. (The company’s planes drop an average of 5.5 million gallons of retardant annually.) The planes’ uses in Flagler County are another indication of the reach of the Division of Forestry’s authority, under the state of emergency, to pull in some federal resources to help in the firefighting effort. The two planes on the powerline task Friday were scheduled to make 11 drops, flying back to Lake City to refill each time.

The planes, preceded several times by another, smaller plane that repeatedly tracked the circuit the larger planes would make, lumbered slowly and low above the trees, then dropped the heavy load of retardant, each time dropping it further south. The planes were also used on Thursday to retard the actual fire as it was making a run on three flanks of the Espanola blaze.

A few hundred yards behind that ride, evidence of the fire was everywhere in spots, in swaths and in vast, seemingly devastated wasteland, where line after line of young pine trees, planted there for eventual harvesting, had been browned to a dead crisp. Many trees had fallen. May were falling: anyone standing there for any stretch of time is likely to either see or hear a falling tree, as roots weakened by the fires give out. Trees are falling on access roads, too: the dangers in that zone are not just from active fire or smoke.

The Division of Forestry is now in control of all fires in Flagler County. Flagler’s and municipal fire departments’ units are used on initial attacks against new fires. The Division of Forestry’s presence has allowed county and city firefighters to have more rest, though they remain on extended duty (36 hours on, 36 hours off), as dangers of fire break-outs are always imminent and the division’s own resources are being pulled in various directions, not least new or growing fires in neighboring counties. “We’re finite, we get stretched,” says Todd Schroeder, a Division of Forestry spokesman.

The northeast battle against the Espanola fire is the division’s “largest concern,” Schroeder said this morning, but it isn’t the only concern. Break-outs yesterday took place on the southeast end of the fire, too, in a swampy area that made any battle difficult, because forestry equipment gets mired in there. The division expects the shape of the fire in that area, in a crescent, eventually to merge, closing a pocket and burning the acreage in between.

By mid- to late afternoon a thunderstorm broke open over parts of the Espanola fire region, dumping a good amount of rain, but the showers were localized and not persistent enough to make much of a difference other than help cool the grounds.

Behind the scenes, the Division of Forestry and local fire officials have been working on a series of so-called “trigger points” for evacuations, essentially putting in place a plan for evacuations should those become necessary. But evacuations don’t mean that the firefighters are not intending to protect homes. To the contrary: protection of homes and property remains a priority. “When we have one loss of one house, we consider that a failure,” says Flagler County Fire Rescue Captain Mike Bazanos. But county officials, with sheriff’s deputies, are likely to be more aggressive during evacuation orders, should those materialize.

Battle at the Power Lines: Photo Gallery

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