Wildfire grows but firefighters move toward ‘mop up’ phase

Wildfire grows but firefighters move toward ‘mop up’ phase

02 March 2011

published by www.news-journalonline.com

USA — A wildfire on the southern end of Volusia County quadrupled in size Tuesday, burning more than 16,144 acres in Volusia and Brevard counties.

However, parts of Interstate 95 and U.S. 1 that had been closed Monday were reopened, and firefighters said Tuesday night they were moving toward the “mop up” phase.

Brisk winds from the north challenged firefighters’ efforts to contain the blaze, quickly drying up the estimated 1/4 inch of rain that fell on the fire as a cold front crossed the area Tuesday morning, said officials with the Florida Division of Forestry.

Tractors, equipment and personnel from the forestry division arrived Tuesday from across the state to help.

By Tuesday night, officials said their efforts were moving toward “mop up” and a voluntary evacuation order was lifted for 1,400 homes in northern Brevard. Forestry officials said about two-thirds of the fire was in Brevard. Between the Volusia/Brevard fire, called the Iron Horse fire, and a smaller fire burning in St. Johns County, officials said smoke will be a problem throughout the area for days to come. Windy conditions also will remain a factor, threatening to push both fires toward more heavily populated areas in Brevard and Flagler counties.

Winds blowing from the north and northeast pushed the Iron Horse fire south Tuesday, away from Oak Hill homes and toward an area of 200 to 300 hundred homes in Brevard.

The same winds threatened to push the St. Johns fire toward Palm Coast in Flagler County, causing concern for officials and residents. That 2,000-acre fire, called the Keller fire, burned just five miles north of the county line.

A Brevard volunteer firefighter was injured Tuesday while battling the blaze and airlifted to the burn unit at Orlando Regional Medical Center with second-degree burns, said Kimberly Prosser, Brevard County spokeswoman.

As of late Tuesday, structural damage had been confined to one mobile home and several utility poles in Brevard, and several hunting camps in Brevard and Volusia, officials said.

The Miami Corp. lost several thousand acres of timber in the fire, but officials could not provide estimates on how many millions of dollars the fire might have cost the company.

To many, smoky conditions throughout the area Tuesday seemed eerily reminiscent of the 1998 wildfires. Nearly thirteen years ago, 70 homes were destroyed and 210,000 acres burned in Flagler and Volusia counties. At one point, all of Flagler County was evacuated. Thirteen years earlier, in 1985, 130 homes were lost during another wildfire in Palm Coast.

Wildfires are part of the natural cycle in Florida and vary depending on the type of habitat, but Timber Weller, a wildfire mitigation specialist with the forestry division, said Tuesday it seems like the Volusia-Flagler area is on its own 12- to 13-year wildfire cycle.

Concerned Flagler officials banned all outdoor burning countywide Tuesday until further notice, including fireworks and outdoor fires with the exception of barbecue grills.

Greg Dunn, forestry division spokesman on the St. Johns fire, said firefighters worked Tuesday to enforce the southern lines around the fire. The fire was burning in an area roughly bordered by U.S. 1, Interstate 95, and State Road 206.

Cloud cover in the area helped with efforts to contain the blaze, despite the wind, Dunn said. The fire threatened at least 20 structures and was about 20 percent contained. The cause is still under investigation.

State forestry investigators also are trying to determine how the Iron Horse fire started.

Officials said they’ve ruled out any connections between the two fires that occurred nearby in the last two weeks. One was a brush fire near Buck Lake, on property owned by the St. Johns River Water Management District. District officials said they suspect arson in that fire. They flew over the site on Monday and said the newer fire did not start in that location.

On Feb. 16, a prescribed fire was conducted on the Colbert Cameron Mitigation Bank off State Road 46, but forestry division officials said Tuesday there’s “no possibility” the Iron Horse fire started there.

Firefighters attacked the Iron Horse fire Tuesday by land and air, using helicopters and airplanes to drop water on the fire and bulldozers to plow lines around the fire to try to keep it from spreading.

In the afternoon, firefighters also worked hot spots along both sides of I-95 on Aurantia Road and along U.S. 1, about a half-mile south of the Volusia County line. Several other hot spots burned within the fire zone, said Cliff Frazier, spokesman for the Florida Division of Forestry.

Brevard County declared a state of emergency Tuesday, saying that would make it easier to request assistance from other agencies.

“There is a lot of work still to be done,” said Fred Jodts, a Brevard Fire Services division chief. Though an estimated 25 percent of the fire was behind plowed fire lines, Jodts said shifts in the wind could change that very quickly.

“Where we are is where the wind drives us,” Jodts said.

The fire grew rapidly overnight Monday, even though fires often calm down and spread less rapidly at night because of higher humidity and lower winds. It created its “own weather overnight, including fire tornadoes,” officials said.

It “handed us our hats after the sun went down,” said Jodts.

The mobile home was destroyed late Monday at 6672 U.S. 1, about 500 yards south of the Volusia County line. The fire missed a shed just 25 yards to the west.

“I can’t believe his was the only trailer leveled,” said Fred Sprague, who identified himself as a friend of the owner. “That is crazy.”

A next door neighbor, Eugene Birkhead, estimated the encroaching wall of fire measured 50 feet high. Birkhead ran three pumps and 20 sprinklers through the night to protect his home.

“We were scared to death,” Birkhead said.

Officials used a method called prescribed fire, or burning under controlled conditions, to try to prevent the fire’s advance, burning a 200-acre spot near Scottsmoor.

Brevard officials also reported a line of fire was stopped before reaching homes on Vermont Street in Scottsmoor because of a prescribed fire conducted there last summer. Forest fire experts say such prescribed burning reduces the amount of fuel such as dead plants and trees that make wildfires more intense.

Officials said residents should continue to call 9-1-1 if flames are seen, but not to report smoke sightings.

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