State budget cuts hamper fire suppression efforts

State budget cuts hamper fire suppression efforts

09 May 2011

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USA: At a briefing held in Stumpy Point today, Sunday, morning, US Fish and Wildlife Service fire officials told the assembled agency representatives that more manpower and equipment is on the way to help fight the wildfire that began Thursday near Pains Bay on Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge on Dare County mainland. The size of the fire is estimated to have doubled in size on Friday and again on Saturday and now has burned about 15,000 acres.

But one very important piece of equipment used to fight large fires that isn’t available is the state-owned CL 215 “Super Scooper,” said Tom Crews, incident commander on this fire, but Fire Management Officer for Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge complex. The plane has the capability to scoop up 1621-3000 gallons of water and drop it on fires.

The North Carolina Forestry Service is great at its job and “we are very appreciative of their efforts,” said Crews. But state budget cuts have reduced personnel and have caused the loss of the use of the CL 215 thus creating a real blow to their fire-fighting capabilities. This important fire-fighting tool is unavailable because it was deemed too expensive to maintain.

“It’s a real workhorse,” said Crews. “It can drop more than three times as much water as any other plane.”

Today, Sunday, a Type 1 helicopter will be used to fight the fire from the air, but its load is about one-third of that of a CL 215. “It [helicopter] costs forty-two thousand a day plus flight time,” said Crews. That plane arrived at Dare County airport in Manteo on Saturday evening.

Firefighters and equipment have been arriving all weekend and the estimated number of 80 firefighters on scene at the time of the briefing is expected to double by the end of the day, said Kelley VanDruten, plans section chief of the type 3 incident command team, and wild land/urban interface specialist for Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge complex.

VanDruten said that other equipment, in addition to the helicopter, expected to join the efforts today are 10 fire engines and three water tenders.

Tim Craig, operations chief on this fire, but Fire Management officer of the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, said that the fire made a “significant run” in all directions on Saturday after it created its own weather. After aerial mapping of the fire at about 4 p.m. on Saturday, the fire took off to the west through pocosin. The fire remained active through out the night.

During the early evening hours, a backfire was set near Lake Worth in an effort to protect a house on the south side of Stumpy Point. More backfires will be set today if conditions permit. The goal is to keep the fire from traveling farther north and east and thus further jeopardize the safety of the village of Stumpy Point.

Craig said that the main two priorities are safety for personnel and protection of the community.

While the briefing was being held, other firefighters were attacking hot spots north of Lake Worth.

Firefighters have been told to not follow the fire into the Dare Bombing Range (DBR) target areas used by US Air Force and US Navy planes.

“If you see what looks like a pipe, don’t pick it up,” said Crews. “DBR will take over if it hits the target area where there is ordnance.” The practice bombs contain phosphorus which can be hazardous to those who come into contact with them.

Joe Lafferty, manager of the US Air Force portion of DBR, said that the gates across the bombing range roads have been opened to allow fire personnel access, and all training operations have been shut down. The US Navy portion of the range did not have a representative at the briefing.

Crews reminded the firefighters that it is safety first and noted that the volunteer firefighters who have been on the scene since first responding on Thursday are becoming worn down. “Fatigue is a safety factor.”

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