The death Monday of two firefighters battling a Hamilton County fire aside, there’s been a distinctly more upbeat tone to the Division of Forestry’s morning briefings on Flagler County’s fires as Wednesday marked almost four successive days of stability. The list of active fires in the county, which reached 22 last week, is down to 10, and most of those are well into the mop-up phase.
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What new fires declared themselves on Saturday were minor and quickly controlled. The Espanola fire, currently among the Division of Forestry’s greatest concerns in the state, has stayed within its lines after last week’s break-outs, enabling more than 200 forestry firefighters to widen and square off firelines and gradually move into a mop-up phase, which means that tactics will switch from digging firelines to pouring water on the fire zone itself in hopes of controlling it further. It’s still a very large muck fire, which means that the soil itself is heavy in fuels and prone to burning for a very long time. It also means that water from fire engines alone won’t put it out. Heavy and persistent rains alone will.
Today–Wednesday–marks the third day in a row of very hot, drier weather, which makes firemen nervous. It’s still possible, in these conditions, that Espanola can break-out–or that any fire can do so, or new fires start. But there’s been a countdown atmosphere in Division of Forestry circles this week, with all eyes on the period from Thursday to Monday, when rain is in the forecast, although so is lightning. That rain isn’t expected to be heavy except in spots. Nevertheless, it signals relief, although more smoke from existing fires is likely to blow over Eastern Flagler County because of wind shifts–and because of the seabreeze blowing back smoke from the large fires in northeast Florida and Georgia onto the coast.
“We’ve made it through two really tough days of heat and wind,” Division of Forestry Spokesman Todd Schroeder said this morning. “We do have some gusts coming this afternoon like we dealt with over the past two days as well. But we’re very confident at this point. We’ve had three days now of relatively no activity as far as any break-outs so we’ve been able to hold the lines that long. We’ve got one day to go.”
On the more somber side of things, the division brought in a counselor for its men and women on the firelines, should they have need to speak to one following Monday’s death, on the firelines in Hamilton, of firefighters Josh Burch and Brett Fulton.
And on the administrative end, the Division of Forestry’s so-called “Red Team”–the type-2 state intervention team that’s taken control of the county’s fires over the past two weeks–will be leaving by week’s end. But it will be replaced by another one of the state’s four type-2 teams, this one called “Gold.” Residents and local firefighters won’t notice a difference. It means the Division of Forestry is still in command of local fires, and will remain so for at least another two weeks, as such teams’ deployments are usually based on two-week spans. The Red Team had upward of 210 people working the fires. Schroeder said the Gold Team is likely to have as many or more.
County and municipal departments remain on alert for any new fires. Their task is to attack new fires in initial stages, then turn them over to Division of Forestry personnel. The county’s firefighters remain on 36-hour on, 36-hour off schedules, and may be exhausting the county’s $350,000 disaster reserves.
“If we do take it over we would have to put a lot of personnel out there,” Flagler County Fire Chief Don Petito said. “DOF has committed a lot of personnel and equipment out there, and if they were to pack up and leave, we would have the manpower to put out there, but we wouldn’t have any manpower for additional attack,” and county firefighters are still responsible for everyday calls, such as a house fore on Tuesday and 20 medical calls.
It’s a matter of numbers. The Division of Forestry’s contingent in Flagler this week is larger than all of the county’s and cities’ firefighting forces combined. Even with help from municipalities, the county’s 76 line firefighters could not assume the same level of control of the Espanola fire as DOF and fulfill their responsibilities–or respond to fire emergencies–elsewhere. Wildfires, in any case, are by law primarily the responsibility of the Division of Forestry.
The governor declared a state of emergency over the wildfires in Florida, which now number 380 across the state, burning 114,420 acres. There’s been a total of 3,626 wildfires since January, burning 200,000 acres, and making this the 11th worst wildfire season since 1981, according to Schroeder.
The governor’s declaration made some additional resources available to Flagler and other counties. In Flagler, for example, the National Guard sent Black Hawk helicopters to help dump water on the fires, and the Division of Forestry was able to contract two wildfire-fighting air tankers. But the state declaration alone won’t be enough to reimburse Flagler County government for the emergency dollars it’s been spending out of its reserves. For that, the governor would have to make a formal request to the president for a federal emergency declaration. Rick Scott has publicly and frequently derided Barack Obama and federal aid, making a request for federal intervention very unlikely.
Petito said he was “not hopeful” that such a declaration will follow. But county firefighters will remain on extended schedules for now, drawing overtime–and countering to some extent, and at a very heavy price to themselves and their families, the effects of a projected third year without raises, and a 3 percent pay cut to which the state is subjecting them by requiring them to pay that portion into the state’s retirement system. “If you were to ask the firefighters on the ground, they’re tired,” Petito said, “they want to go home. They’re not knocking on my door wanting more overtime.”