In a brutal indication of dangers posed even by fires that have been declared fully contained, two Division of Forestry firefighters were killed and two injured on Monday while mopping up the relatively small Blue Ribbon fire near Jasper in Hamilton County, half way between Tallahassee and Jacksonville.
Josh Burch, 31, was a Forest Ranger who lived in Lake City with his wife and two children. He worked with the Division of Forestry for more than ten years, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture. Brett Fulton, 52, began as a professional welder with the Division 12 years ago. He has been a Forest Ranger with the Department for more than nine years. Fulton leaves behind a wife and two grown children in White Springs.
The Blue Ribbon fire started last week—on June 16—and had been declared containe, as have all but a handful of Flagler County’s 16 active wildfires. But the persistence of drought conditions, dryer air and the unpredictability of fire behavior triggered a flare-up on the fire. The Blue Ribbon fire is just 4 acres.
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According to Jacksonville’s News4, “the two men were overrun by flames while driving tractors while cutting fire lines to prevent the fire from spreading.”
The deaths are the first to firefighters this season since the Division of Forestry and the majority of fire departments across the state have been battling more than 1,500 fires across 200,000 acres.
Flagler County had been experiencing a lull over the weekend, enabling firefighters to broaden fire lines around the county’s largest blaze, the 5,100-acre Espanola fire just six miles west of Palm Coast. But that fire flared up again in two separate zones on Monday, calling the National Guard’s three Black Haw helicopters, staged at the Flagler County Airport, into action.
On Monday, the Division of Forestry’s Todd Shroeder said the entire western flank of the Espanola fire had been contained, with no active fires there. But fires persist in the northeast and southern ends of the fire.
“We don’t want anybody to be fooled by the lull,” Flagler County Fire Chief Don Petito said.
The Division of Forestry had more than 200 firefighters on the ground in Flagler at least through Monday, but its resources are being increasingly strained by an explosion of fires in the Bunnell District and beyond. The Bunnell District includes Flagler, Volusia and St. Johns counties. There are 111 active fires in those three counties. In the past 48 hours, Flagler was able to send a strike force of firefighters to Volusia to help fight a fire near Barberville.
In and around Duvall County—which had sent generous resources to Flagler last week—157 wildfires were burning within a 50-mile radius, covering 280,595 acres, according to the Times-Union. The largest fire is on the Georgia-Florida border. That’s the 252,000-acre Honey Prairie fire. As in Jacksonville, westerly winds are pushing smoke from neighboring fires onto urban areas, including heavy smoke today in Palm Coast, Bunnell and Flagler Beach.
In response to the fires, the Flagler County Commission on Monday cancelled all planned, sanctioned July 4th fireworks shows—in Flagler Beach, in Town Center and in the Hammock. All other fireworks are also banned, including hand-held sparklers. The risks aren’t worth the celebration, commissioners said.
The Division of Forestry hasn’t released the names of the two firefighters killed on Monday.
“My thoughts and prayers go out to the families and loved ones of the two courageous men who sacrificed their lives for the safety of others,” said Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam in a statement from the division. “We can rebuild the structures and restore the land, but the lives of these two heroes can never be replaced.”