Florida wildfire season underway; crews working multiple lightning-caused fires

The Greenway Fire burned more than 6,000 acres in Florida as of Sunday, March 25, 2018. Photo: Greater Naples Fire Rescue

Spring has sprung, and so have wildfires in parched parts of Florida.

The Greenway Fire, burned 6,600 acres by Sunday afternoon and was 20 percent contained, according to Greater Naples Fire Rescue. A 17-acre spot fire was complicating efforts, and crews have worked to keep the blaze from reaching southwest Florida communities, including VeronaWalk and Winding Cypress.

“As long as wind conditions do not unexpectedly change, the outlook for these communities looks favorable as of this report,” fire officials said Sunday.

Elsewhere, the 116th Ave SE Fire was listed at 8,000 acres and 45 percent contained Sunday, per the the Caloosahatchee Forestry Center. This fire is moving toward the Flag Pond Fire, which burned 2,600 acres and was 100 percent contained Sunday — at least one occupied RV/home was destroyed, officials said.

Each of the fires was caused by lightning, officials said.

The Florida Forest Service and the Collier County Sheriff’s Office were assisting in the effort, with teams conducting water drops in the area.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam H. Putnam and the Florida Forest Service last week urged Floridians to exercise caution due to significantly heightened wildfire risk throughout the state. Despite recent rainfall, drought conditions throughout the state are expected to continue — the Florida Forest Service has worked more than 700 wildfires across the state since the start of this year 2018.

“Florida’s wildland firefighters have proven time and again that they are prepared to put their lives on the line to keep Floridians safe,” Putnam said. “Floridians can do their part by keeping preventable human-caused wildfires at bay and preparing their families and homes for wildfire.”

Florida Fire Risk for Sunday, via Florida Forest Service website.

2017 Pulaski Award given to Spaceport Integration Team

A memorial was also dedicated to two USFWS firefighters who perished on the Ransom Road Fire in June, 1981.

Memorial Honor Guard FWS
The FWS honor guard places two crossed Pulaski tools at the memorial, a traditional ceremony acknowledging the passing of a wildland firefighter. FWS photo.

In a dual-purpose ceremony November 1 at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Florida (map) a group of land managers received an award and a memorial was dedicated to two deceased wildland firefighters.

In 1981 two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) firefighters were killed on the Ransom Road Fire at the Refuge. Scott Maness and Beau Sauselein were building fireline with a tractor plow when a passing thunderstorm caused a 90-degree wind shift in the wind direction with gusts up to 45 mph. They raised the plow and tried to escape on the tractor but it became high-centered on a stump concealed by palmetto. They dismounted and fled on foot but were overtaken by the fire. The two men shared a fire shelter but both were killed.

Today the Refuge hosted an outdoor ceremony near Cape Canaveral with 140 guests, including former co-workers and family members of Mr. Maness and Mr. Sauselein. The historic tragedy triggered dramatic improvements in the FWS fire program, culminating in a professional collaboration with federal, state, and local partners to support the safe operation of the spaceport while protecting a myriad of resident wildlife species.

FWS photo.

The ceremony opened with the six-person uniformed FWS National Honor Guard presenting colors and symbolically placing firefighting tools at an inscribed granite marker in front of the Refuge headquarters. Designed and built by the Refuge’s fire crew, the new memorial is now a daily reminder to staff of how two men gave their lives, imparting lessons leading to improvements in firefighter safety.

Pulaski award
Spaceport Integration Team representatives with Pulaski Award plaques. Colonel Z. Walter Jackim, Vice Commander, 45th Space Wing, Patrick Air Force Base, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station; Michael Good, Acting Fire Management Officer, Merritt Island NWR; John Fish, Chief, Florida Forest Service; Mark Schollmeyer Chief, Brevard County Fire Rescue; and Kelvin Manning, Associate Director, Kennedy Space Center, National Aeronautics and Space Administration. FWS photo.

Following the memorial dedication, FWS Chief of Fire Management Chris Wilcox presented the National Interagency Fire Center 2017 Pulaski Award to the Spaceport Integration Team of FWS, Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (45th Space Wing), Florida Forest Service, and Brevard County Fire Rescue. The group award is given by NIFC fire chiefs including the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, National Association of State Foresters, and other fire programs.

About 35 attendees are also participating this week in a field study of the Ransom Road Fire. Modeled after a military leadership “staff ride,” the day-long exercise focuses on the progression of events and decision making that led to the loss of life. As the first formal staff ride at the Refuge, fire leaders hope to repeat the Ransom Road Fire exercise for more fire managers in the future.

ceremonial Pulaski tool
A ceremonial Pulaski tool. FWS photo.

Park Service boat hauls supplies to hurricane ravaged islands

Above: MV Fort Jefferson. NPS photo.

A lot of people have not heard of a park that is 68 miles west of Key West, Florida. Dry Tortugas National Park is comprised of seven islands, plus protected coral reefs. Garden Key is home to beaches and the 19th-century Fort Jefferson. The National Park Service operates a boat named after the fort that makes regular runs to the park. It turns out that a boat is one of the best ways to haul large quantities of supplies to hurricane damaged islands.

From the National Park Service on September 25, 2017:


Homestead, Fla. – The 110-foot MV [Motor Vessel] Fort Jefferson, normally used to transport staff and supplies to Dry Tortugas National Park, has been loaded with over 24 tons of supplies and equipment for national parks in the Caribbean following Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The vessel departed today and will make the 78-hour trip from Key West to the Caribbean national parks this week.

“We are grateful to Dry Tortugas National Park for use of their vessel to get critical supplies to our Caribbean parks,” said [Eastern Incident Management Team] Incident Commander James King. “When I contacted Park Superintendent Pedro Ramos, he didn’t bat an eye and immediately offered his support.”

On Sunday, September 24, EIMT logistics personnel loaded over 20 pallets of food, water, fuel, and generators on the vessel. Three National Park Service boat crewmembers along with four Law Enforcement Rangers will accompany the shipment to the Caribbean. The boat is transporting supplies and resources to Virgin Islands National Park on the island of St. John and Christiansted National Historic Site on the island of St. Croix.

MV Fort Jefferson
NPS photo.

In addition to transporting supplies for the National Park Service, the vessel is also transporting six pallets of supplies for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a sister agency within the Department of the Interior. The agency has employees on the Caribbean Islands, who normally work at three National Wildlife Refuges. The two agencies have worked closely through Hurricanes Irma and Maria on stabilization, cleanup, and recovery efforts.

Employee accountability and care continue to be primary concerns of the National Park Service. Employees at all six national parks in the Caribbean have been accounted for, with the exception of San Juan National Historic Site where employee communications are currently hampered by power outages, flooding, and inaccessible roadways.

Additional updates on the status of these parks can be found at http://go.nps.gov/hurricane. Photos may be found at www.flickr.com/photos/nps_eimt.

Florida man billed $50,000 for wildfire that started from his book fire

On March 23 in Nassau County, Florida a fire escaped from Brian Sparks’ yard while he was burning books. The Garfield Road Wildfire burned 705 acres and two homes.

Monday he received an invoice from the Florida Department of Agriculture for the costs of suppressing the fire — $59,403.38. The bill includes the costs incurred by a dozer/plow, rangers, five hours for a fixed wing aircraft, and other firefighters from several counties.

Florida Garfield Road Fire
Garfield Road Fire, March 23, 2017. Florida Forest Service photo.

Mr. Sparks is also facing a misdemeanor criminal citation for failure to obtain a department permit and reckless land burning which included paperback books and other clutter.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Robin.
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Static rocket test starts vegetation fire at Kennedy Space Center

Above: Static test firing of a SpaceX rocket, May 28, 2017 at the Kennedy Space Center. The smoke is from the rocket, not the vegetation fire. SpaceX photo.

The static test firing of a rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida started a vegetation fire in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge May 28. SpaceX was conducting a test of a Falcon 9 rocket at Launch Complex 39A when the fire accidentally started on what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service called a small island. With the aid of water drops from a helicopter the spread of the fire was stopped at four acres.

SpaceX plans to actually launch the rocket Thursday June 1 at 5:55 p.m. EDT to ferry a Dragon cargo ship to the International Space Station.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge fire
The fire burned about four acres in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. USFWS photo.
Launch Complex 39A photo
Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center.

West Mims Fire headlines fade away; firefight and drought continues

Above: A helicopter carries a bucket of water on a drop at the fire in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Photo via InciWeb, posted May 14, 2017. 

Remember the West Mims Fire?

The massive blaze that generated national media attention for days, threatened a Georgia town and sent ash falling over densely populated cities has all-but-faded away for most of the country. Aided by Mother Nature, crews continue to gain the upper hand on the 152,000-acre lightning-sparked wildfire, which was 60 percent contained as of this weekend.

Seven helicopters, two air tankers, 135 wildland fire engines, 62 bulldozers, five hand crews, and 1,025 personnel were assigned to the blaze Sunday.

“The fire remained relatively inactive,” officials said in an update.

While “inactive” is the name of the game for the West Mims Fire — and for spring fire situations across much of the U.S. inundated with spring storms and abundant moisture — it’s anything but quiet in the Sunshine State.

Twenty-eight fires in excess of 100 acres burned over the weekend within Florida Fire Service jurisdiction, charring 36,000 acres, according to state figures.

Such blazes blackened 109,415 acres of land so far this year.

Fire danger indices were “high” or “very high” in more than a dozen Florida counties this weekend. Citrus growers “are irrigating daily to keep moisture on the trees,” the USDA reported, and “ditches and canals are very dry in all [citrus] areas.” Plus, livestock producers are having to have hay shipped in as a result of the dry conditions.

And even though some rain was in the forecast for some Florida residents, state officials said they’re not out of danger by any stretch of the imagination.

“We are buckled up for a very long and very hot wildfire season,” said Adam Putnam, the commissioner of agriculture in Florida, according to Bloomberg News. 

Florida drought monitor report May 18, 2017.
U.S. Drought Monitor report May 18, 2017.

Meanwhile, others around the country are enjoying a relatively unusual drought-free reality as June nears.

Feet — yes, feet — of snow fell in Colorado and across the Rocky Mountains late last week as a potent spring storm plowed through the region. And places accustomed to persistent drought, like California, continue to bask in aftermath of an especially soggy winter.

“An active weather pattern continued to result in widespread showers, with some of the heaviest rain falling across the Plains, Midwest, and mid-South,” the U.S. Drought Monitor reported last week.

“Another area of significant precipitation stretched across the middle and northern Atlantic States, while showers also dotted the Northwest. In contrast, mostly dry weather prevailed from California to the lower Rio Grande Valley, as well as large sections of the lower Southeast.”

National drought snapshot, via U.S. Drought Monitor May 18, 2017, report.
National drought snapshot, via U.S. Drought Monitor May 18, 2017, report.

Though hot temperatures are forecast for parts of California early this week, a cold front is expected to move through the Pacific Northwest, bringing cooler conditions and more moisture, according to the National Weather Service. 

Floridians in the meantime will have to keep waiting for the rainy seasons to finally begin, later this month and into June.

“It’s kind of like an ugly cycle. Hot breeds dry and dry breeds hot,” meteorologist Grant Gilmore told the Tampa Bay Times last week. “…It doesn’t look like the cycle breaks in a big way any time soon.”