USA — Janice Glover remembers feeling like a prisoner in her West Cavelier Drive home in August, wheezing for breath indoors and fighting bouts of nausea as the smoke from marsh fires nearly three miles away enveloped her eastern New Orleans neighborhood. I would wake up early in the morning, 3 or 4 a.m., and smell the smoke in my bedroom, and at night after 12, she said. It was all through the house, on our clothes, our hands, everything smelled of smoke.
I was literally crying on a daily basis because I couldnt breathe, she said.
At their height at the end of August, the two fires on the northern and southern edges of the mostly undeveloped, 2,000-acre Pine Island property owned by John Cummings blanketed much of the New Orleans area with heavy smoke.
The acrid cloud, rich in tiny particles that could be damaging to lungs, prompted several days of health warnings from medical experts and school officials and air quality alerts from the state Department of Environmental Quality. National Guard helicopters armed with 500-gallon water buckets launched a largely unsuccessful attack on the fires from the air, and then Tropical Storm Lee dumped close to 13 inches of rain on the blazes on Sept. 4.
The intense rainfall dampened the fires intensity, but both continued to smolder and spread.
Five months later, smoke from the fires continues to waft in smaller amounts into Glovers neighborhood on humid nights and early mornings.
But there also have been dangerous flare-ups. On Dec. 29, a 40-vehicle pileup on Interstate 10 near the Michoud Boulevard exit, triggered by what was thought to be a combination of smoke from the fire and fog, killed two men and injured dozens more. A second fatal accident, also linked to smoke, occurred Wednesday at 8 p.m. near the same location. A third smoke-related accident, resulting in a minor injury to one passenger, happened in the same location on the morning of Jan. 4.
The state soon placed temporary warning signs along the interstate to alert motorists of road hazards, and the city repaired a bank of streetlights that were out during Decembers accident.
Meanwhile, the New Orleans Fire Department, with Cummings assistance, has started what it expects to be a months-long effort to put the two fires out. It will take that long because of the fires locations far from city fire hydrants and inaccessible with city fire trucks and equipment and because the fire is spreading through the drought-dried brush and the equally flammable, 2-foot-deep organic soils on the Pine Island property.
Firefighters believe the fires were started by lightning during thunderstorms last summer. The areas on fire contain a thick layer of woody litter from the mix of saplings and other vegetation, underlain by peaty material and organic soil, similar to backyard mulch, that is now about 2 1/2 feet deep. The upper layers of soil are loose enough to allow access to oxygen, guaranteeing that the fire will spread easily for months.
The New Orleans area has been caught in an unprecedented extreme drought that stretches back at least two years, and that isnt expected to end until at least this summer. Cummings property, meanwhile, has been drying out for more than 70 years after being cut off from routine inundation from Lake Pontchartrain by the citys levee system, and then being drained by interior canals built by developers.
The land was once part of the sprawling 24,000-acre New Orleans East Inc. development that Texas oilman Clint Murchison unsuccessfully tried to fashion into a city-within-a-city for more than 20 years, beginning in the late 1950s. After Murchisons real estate empire crumbled in 1985, more than 20,000 undeveloped acres were transferred to a consortium of banks and investment houses.
About 18,000 acres became Bayou Sauvage Urban National Wildlife Refuge in 1989. First Savings of Arkansas tried to market the remaining 2,900 acres once as part of the upscale Oak Island subdivision.
But First Savings failed in 1989, and its assets were seized in 1991 by the federal Resolution Trust Corp., established by Congress that year to liquidate real estate and other assets acquired by the federal government from insolvent savings and loans.
Cummings paid an estimated $2.5 million to the RTC in 1994 for the land. It remains the largest undeveloped tract in the city.
Scrambling for a solution
The city responded to the initial fire and beefed up efforts requesting National Guard assistance when smoke blanketed the area. Firefighters renewed their efforts in mid-September, as smoke once again became problematic and three residents of the Nazareth Inn II nursing home on Hayne Boulevard who suffer from respiratory illnesses filed a class-action lawsuit in state court against the city and owners of the burning property.
A driver injured in the 40-car New Years accident filed suit two weeks ago in state court against the city, the state, his insurance company and others, also claiming that city and state officials hadnt done enough to quench the fires, even as fire department officials were waiting for Cummings to provide access to the hot spots.
Last week, firefighters from Engine Co. 37 drove along the newly built shell road to the edge of a canal across from the island on which the southernmost blaze was smoldering. In twos, they boarded an aluminum flat-bottomed boat to ferry across to the burn area.
On the other side, they followed a path cut through a forest of skinny saplings by previous firefighters, who had also laid down about 400 feet of 5-inch fire hose to the burning edge of the fire.
Strings of smoke rose from the crescent-shaped edge of the fire, with the sunken, already-burned area behind it littered with hundreds of fallen saplings, their roots burned to the surface by the slow-moving underground blaze.
An underground sensor measured temperatures at the southern fire area ranging from 220 degrees 6 inches below the surface to 300 degrees at 2 feet deep, about 6 inches above the areas water table. The northern fire is hotter still, with temperatures underground near Interstate 10 ranging between 500 and 850 degrees.
New Orleans Fire Department firefighters Troy Day, left and Billy Parks drag hose to the underground fire in eastern New Orleans.
A long, tedious job
The firefighters connected a nozzle balanced on stilts and radioed back to the operator of a portable pump on the other side of the canal to begin the flow of water. Soon, a rust-colored stream of canal water gushed out the nozzle onto the fire, increasing its production of smoke.
This is going to be a long, tedious job, said Fire Chief Joseph Matthews, assistant superintendent for special operations and planning, who is directing the unusual operation. Were not paying overtime. Were just taking off-duty firefighters and using them to move the hose around.
Were not leaving them out there 24 hours a day, he said. Once they do a four-hour shift out there, they return to their station for the rest of their 24 hours.
He estimated that firefighters pumped about 1 million gallons of water into the southern blaze area during the first two weeks of the operation. Firefighters use much less water and much smaller hoses to fight a house fire. A pump truck used to fight a car fire carries only 750 gallons of water, usually enough to put out that type of blaze.
While well-versed in fighting structural fires, none of the citys firefighters has been trained in fighting underground wildfires in former swamps.
Im not getting anybody hurt fighting a fire like this, because you have to remember that theres no property, no peoples houses that are in danger, and no ones life is in danger, said Fire Superintendent Charles Parent. The casualties well see are our firefighters.
Youd be amazed at the amount of dead trees and vegetation in the area, Matthews said. At the height in August, for me to put our people on that island, not knowing if they would be caught in a firestorm if the wind shifted on them, they would have no way of getting out of there. They wouldnt be able to outrun the flame wall in a marsh area.
Indeed, a major problem for the firefighters is determining where the fire is, or has been. A firefighter who steps atop an area thats already burned might sink two feet deep.
The firefighters also must be on the lookout for a variety of wildlife, he said.
The first time we sent a recon patrol out there, one of our guys stepped right over a rattlesnake, he said. Other firefighters said they have spotted wild boars in the area.
The northern fire, also on an island surrounded by canals, is even more inaccessible, Parent said. While Cummings is considering building a road to that conflagration, possibly from the Michoud Boulevard exit from I-10, no decision has been made. Cummings did not respond to a request for an interview for this story.
Without a road, its not just difficult to get to that fire, but pretty much impossible, Parent said. That may be one that we have to let burn itself out.
The northern fire is just southeast of Big Oak Island, a 650-foot-long by 165-foot-wide shell midden and Indian burial ground that dates to 520 B.C., when it was settled by prehistoric Tchefuncte Indians. It was later colonized by Marksville Indians. The burial ground, which contains bones from as many as 30 bodies, was from the later history.
Animal refuge covets land
The adjacent wildlife refuge has sought to acquire the land around the midden, including the area that contains the fire, since completion of its development master plan in 1995. A smaller midden, named Little Oak Island, is in the refuge just southeast of the Maxent Canal, which divides the Cummings property from the refuge.
When the master plan was released, Cummings said he wanted to develop property just west of the refuge into a residential golf community that also might include a 450-room hotel and a convention center.
As part of that plan, Cummings hoped to persuade the refuge to build its proposed visitor center near the midden on his land. The visitor center was never built.