Dodging bears while fighting a wildfire

Dodging bears while fighting a wildfire

16 August 2011

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USA — Fighting wildfires is dangerous — the skin-searing heat, throat-choking smoke and plenty of power tools.

Oh, and don’t forget look out for the black bears.

Roughly two dozen firefighters spotted a pair Monday afternoon near the gravel road where they worked to corral the blaze that has scorched about 6,000 acres of the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

“It was a mama and her baby just sitting there watching the firefighters,” said Jon Wallace, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service firefighter from West Palm Beach, Fla.

The bears, as they often do, left the firefighters to their work — an organized series of tasks, which, despite what Hollywood movies show, is more construction project than aiming hoses at a towering inferno.

A 90-minute tour of a small portion of the blaze revealed only one flame. It was the size of a small campfire and, given the lack of brush surrounding it, not enough to concern a group of nearby firefighters.

There are bigger flames, according to Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Catherine Hibbard, who said helicopter pilots spotted plenty from the sky. But that’s not where nearly 400 firefighters, who have converged on the swamp since the fire was reported Aug. 4, spend their time.

Some work miles away building dams with bulldozers to trap water that’s needed to soak the smoldering layers of peat that cover the swamp floor. Unless the wind blows their way, an unsuspecting visitor would be unaware of the nearby destruction.

Most firefighters work the blaze’s outer fringe using pickaxes, shovels and other tools to clear brush that, left alone, will fuel the fire. The smoke limits visibility to tens of feet and the road is cluttered with backhoes, dump trucks and rental cars.

Others, like Wallace, harness water from Lake Drummond, a 3,142-acre shallow pool of water that abuts the blaze. Pumps pull 30,000 gallons of water per minute — plus the occasional fish — from the lake.

“The birds have just been eating it up,” Wallace said of the crappie and bowfins sucked through a series of pipes to roadside ditches where the water soaks the ground and spreads, smothering the smoking peat.

Progress is slow — only 10 percent of the fire was contained as of Tuesday — but noticeable. Portions of the charred fields no longer smoke and puddles of water make the swamp look like a swamp — not the drought-parched forest it recently resembled.

There have been no serious injuries at the fire, which is believed to have started by lightning. Wildlife at the 111,2000-acre refuge, which includes bald eagles, deer, bobcats, rattlesnakes and at least 57 species of butterflies, should not be harmed, Hibbard said.

Damage to the ecosystem is still being tallied.

The blackened trunks of limbless Bald Cypress trees stand alone, their exposed roots clinging to the ground like a dead man’s fingers. Refuge manager Chris Lowie estimates the fire burned up to six feet of peat in hot spots, reversing hundreds of years worth of accumulation.

One inch of peat, Lowie said, takes up to 900 years to form.

Also burned are numerous Atlantic white cedar trees, the rare evergreen that can be found from Maine to Mississippi.

The refuge held the largest U.S. stand of the trees until a 2008 wildfire. Fish and Wildlife teamed up with Christopher Newport University to replant 230,000 seedlings. All of the seedlings have been destroyed, Hibbard said.

The size of the fire, shifting winds and unpredictable weather make it difficult to predict when firefighters will be able to put down the blaze, Hibbard said.

Firefighters, meanwhile, are growing used to long days; many work 16-hour shifts for 14 days straight before they get a hint of rest. After that, many are quickly dispatched to any of the dozens of other wildfires burning throughout the nation, Hibbard said.

Wallace, a 25-year veteran of the service, was last at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., where he participated in a controlled burn. Before that it was the Everglades. After a while, each tends to blend together, he said.

As he spoke, gray clouds rolled in overhead. Rain came about 30 minutes later and Wallace, back to his water pumping duties, probably smiled.

“Every ounce of water we put out here is going to help,” he said.

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