In 1998, Florida had the worst wildfire season in its history. Those fires were burning everywhere. You couldn’t go outside without coughing on the smoke.
The undergrowth, what we call fuel load, was immense. Years of putting out wildfires meant that there were layers of dead undergrowth, with new growth on top. Normally, nature periodically has a wildfire caused by lightning or some other natural source that gets rid of the dead undergrowth and provides nutrients for new growth. For years, firefighters had been putting out these natural fires, and there was an enormous amount of fuel lying about.
I remember that year. It began in February with a killer tornado outbreak. A dozen tornadoes killed 42 people. We were finding bodies for over a week. I was the operations officer for the Moonbeam Mobile Home park for the first night of that disaster. We recovered half a dozen bodies, including a baby. Those storms kicked off a weeks of almost daily rain.
In March, it stopped raining. By May, the entire state was tinder dry. Air warmed by the sun heated ground would begin to rise at about 10 am. Cooler, moisture laden air would rush in from the ocean. That sea breeze causes thunderstorms. This is a normal weather pattern in Florida. It happens every day.
Except in 1998, there was little rain, these storms were flush with lightning, but didn’t drop nearly enough rain. The dry brush would be ignited by lightning and other sources. Mostly lightning, sometimes people, mostly by accident. A carelessly discarded cigarette butt, a hot muffler in tall grass, an unattended fire, or even arson. Stoked by a brisk sea breeze, the fires would grow quickly. The fuel load was so heavy, the brush was so dry, this time there was no stopping the fires. I spent two weeks on the fire line. Always the same: the fires would grow with the sea breeze, get larger, and we would begin our day.
Cut fire lines with the assistance of forestry service fire plows, backed up by brush tankers. A brush tanker is a great invention. Take a surplus military 5 ton 6×6 truck. Put a gasoline powered pump, a foam proportioner, and a supply tank onboard. The tank contains two compartments: a 500 gallon one for water, and a 25 gallon compartment for class A foam. This leaves a walkway for a firefighter to stand, and we covered that walkway in black paint mixed with sand to make a nonskid surface for firefighter boots to find purchase on the foam slicked surface.
As I said, two weeks on the fire line. We would get up and eat breakfast at 6 am, check the gear, and get ready. The fires would kick up at about 10 am, and we would lay down a layer of water and foam on top of a fire break cut by a plow. A pair of brush tankers with a crew of three each follow the fire plow as it cuts a break, spraying the area with foam. A crew of ten follows that, and makes sure the break doesn’t get jumped by the fire. Since you are directly in the fire’s path, it is hot, dangerous work. You have to keep an eye out to make sure the fire doesn’t cut you off, and that it remains far enough away to keep you out of danger. It takes about half an hour to run out of water, if used judiciously. Fill at the nearest pond (It IS Florida. There is swamp everywhere) Every two hours, go to the supply point, refuel the pump, grab some water, head back to the line. Every two fuel breaks, you got a box with a sandwich and a bag of chips. By 11 pm, the sea breeze dies down enough that the fires start to lose steam. By about 1 am, the fires would die down and almost go out. Crews would take turns watching the day’s fire lines, while the rest of the crews found a field to lie down in and get some sleep. A single one hour watch plus four hours of sleep each night. Second watch was the worst: an hour of sleep, an hour of watch, three hours of sleep.
Anyway, we learned our lesson. Now Florida allows wildfires to burn a bit. We do prescribed burns. Good forestry management. The Pacific Northwest hasn’t. When their forestry people try to do a prescribed burn, the environmentalists sue. So now they are having their own fire troubles. Maybe this time they will learn. I doubt it.