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4 New Fires Saturday as Division of Forestry Escalates Battle and Tactics Against Espanola

| June 18, 2011

The other Espanola cemetery. All those trees are dead. (© FlaglerLive)

The Division of Forestry today and for the next few days will have more firefighters on the ground, mostly battling the Espanola blaze, than all of Flagler County’s and three cities’ fire departments’ squads combined.

Last night, the Division of Forestry’s contingent in Flagler County grew by an additional 35 people, bringing the total number of DOF personnel working the Espanola and other fires to 210. The division is entirely in charge of all active fires in the county, leaving county and city fire departments to keep watch for new fires, which they would attack first.

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Lightning triggered four new fires in Flagler County Saturday afternoon, the largest of which a 6.5 acre fire in the southeastern portion of the county, away from homes. The others were 1.5 acres or less. (See the complete list.) Saturday’s lightning storm likely lit additional fires that will pop up in the next 24 to 48 hours. But the last 48 hours have been generally good to the firefighting effort, enabling the Division of Forestry to significantly broaden its battle against Espanola.

“We actually got ahead of the curve today,” fire Operations Chief Roger Gill said late Saturday. Gill is with the DOF’s so-called Red Team, a “type 2,” state command now in charge of Flagler’s fires and headquartered at the county’s Emergency Operations Center. “We have the people and the equipment we need to get the job done,” Gills said. It’s the first time in weeks that fire officials are speaking with confidence enough to say that they’re ahead of the fire.

But wildfires are named that way for a reason: they have a way of defying control. The next few days will be key: if the fire stays within the lines–the much wider lines cut around it–then DOF can ratify its confidence with a measure of celebration. If the fire yet again manages to jump the lines, it would be seen as a significant setback, because the division isn’t likely to have another such chance to dig in and do battle should the fire skip past the powerlines to the east and start heading for U.S. 1. There is an element of make or break to this weekend’s tactics.

So far, matters have worked to firefighters’ advantage.

A combination of scattered rains, higher humidity and calmer winds helped keep the fires down, after the Espanola blaze galloped through more acreage on Wednesday and Thursday. The escalation in manpower is also helping significantly, as has the presence of three Black Hawk helicopters at the Flagler County Airport, which are equipped with 780-gallon buckets each (compared to the 200-gallon bucket attached to Flagler County’s Fire Flight helicopter).

The overwhelming majority of the Division of Forestry’s men and women are concentrated on the Espanola fire. The large number of firefighters there has enabled DOF to split the attack into six divisions around the fire, each with its own command. There are 17 bulldozers and 17 Type 6 brush truck engines also encircling the fire’s perimeter, and working to expand new lines.

That’s been the strategy in the last two days, continuing into Sunday: DOF is taking advantage of the calmer situation to widen firelines, especially at the eastern end of the fire, which has crept to within less than a mile of Florida Power and Light’s 500-kilovolt powerlines, which supply substations in Flagler and Volusia counties.

On the ground, the goal is to essentially round out the fire’s perimeter while enlarging the firelines around it to lessen the chances of break-outs. This weekend is key, because come Monday, the winds will shift to a more southerly direction, and chances of rain will fall again to nil, heightening chances of misbehaving fires.

“The incident commander is very pleased with the level of personnel on the fire to really make an impact” this weekend, DOF Spokesman Todd Schroeder said Saturday. But the DOF’s Ed Flowers, a planning chief, said scattered rains “by no means will put this fire out.” About 2 to 3 inches of rain were recorded on Friday, some of it on the critical eastern portion of the fire, where huge air tankers also dropped 11 loads of fire retardant in a line on the eastern edge of the powerline corridor. It’s not yet known how much rain fell today.

In addition to the 210 Divisionj of Forestry firefighters (and other personnel) on the job in the county, Flagler County Fire Rescue had 55 people on duty on Saturday. With the municipalities’ crews, the county as a whole had, with DOF, a force of about 300 firefighters either doing battle or on the clock, ready to do battle.

Flagler County Fire Recue Operations Chief Mike Bazanos dispelled notions that, because the county has been removed from mopping up operations on the county’s existing fires, its role had been diminished. “This role that we have is extremely important,” Bazanos said. “This is the one that, the way we look at it, this is the one that’s going to be saving homes and property, just like they’re doing, and we have the resources and the knowledge. That’s what we do. We’re initial attack and we’re structure protection.”

Flagler County fire rescue personnel remains on a 36 hours on, 36 hours off schedule.

1 Response for “4 New Fires Saturday as Division of Forestry Escalates Battle and Tactics Against Espanola”

  1. Merrill says:

    Kudos to all those heroes fighting those fires for us! It is good to know that the State of Florida is finally paying Flagler County some attention. It’s just too bad that we have to be on fire to be noticed by Tallahassee!

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