FIGHTING AN INFERNO
July 6, 1998
Light rain over the weekend helped firefighters contain the further spreading of wildfires in Florida, allowing more than 40,000 people to return home. Following a background report, Phil Ponce and guests discuss Florida's battle against wildfires.
JIM LEHRER: Phil Ponce has more.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
July 6, 1998
A background report on Florida's fight against wildfires.
July 2, 1998
A report on the fires blazing through Florida.
May 22, 1998
Lee Hochberg reports on fires in Mexico.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the environmental issues.
The Florida Department of Agriculture's fire information page.
The USDA National Forest Service
PHIL PONCE: We are now joined by two of the leaders in the fight against those fighters: Colonel Jimmy Watson of the Florida National Guard has helped direct the Guard in the air and on the ground. And John Webster from the Florida Division of Forestry has coordinated firefighting from the capital. He'll take command of firefighting in two key counties later this week. Gentlemen, welcome. Mr. Webster, we understand there's been some-we understand there's been some rain. What's the latest?
JOHN WEBSTER, Florida Division of Forestry: Well, we've been able to get a little bit of rain in the central part of the state, in East Central Florida in the way of thunder shows, and it's cooling down some of the fires that gives us a little bit of relief. The one thing that we worry about is the lightning associated with that rain, because usually that starts another fire too for us.
PHIL PONCE: And just how much rain do you think you need to really make some progress?
Mr. Webster: "What we're going to need is a tropical depression."
JOHN WEBSTER: What we're going to need is a tropical depression. We need a depression that's going to bring in eight to ten inches of rain and fill up a lot of the swampy areas that normally would have water this time of year, that don't have any water in them.
PHIL PONCE: And anything like that in the forecast?
JOHN WEBSTER: Well, all eyes are focused south right now as we watch a tropical depression start to form south of Cuba, and we hope that it's going to work its way up the panhandle. We're in hopes of seeing it later on this week.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Webster, in very basic terms, how do you fight a fire like this? How do you fight fires like these?
JOHN WEBSTER: These fires are much more difficult compared to what we normally do. A standard firefighting team in Florida would take a bulldozer with a blade and a fire plow on the back of it and our whole purpose would try to be to remove the fuel that's in front of the fire. But we're normally dealing with fires that have one- and two-foot flames lengths on them. Right now the fuel moisture is so low 80 percent of its out of the plants-I mean, trees are just dying on their own-that now when a fire gets in there, the flame licks can jump up to 20 and 25 feet, and these fire lines that we have can't stop 'em. So what we're forced to do now is go in and plow line and then use a bulldozer to blade it out wide enough that we can get brush trucks in, brush trucks and water tenders to put water on the fire and try to hold the fire in place until Mother Nature will come put it out for us.
PHIL PONCE: So, Mr. Webster, how wide are these trenches that you're talking about?
JOHN WEBSTER: They're very small compared to what we need. A standard fire plow will put one about eight-foot wide, bladed for tractors to go around fuel and water tenders will be anyplace from fifteen to twenty feet. Dry conditions right now are so bad that Interstate 95, which has a 1,000-foot width to it, can't stop fires either. They just spot right over the top. So you can see it's kind of a wasted effort as far as our part to fire lines in front of a going wildfire. We just need Mother Nature to cool all this down with some very substantial rains in the very near future.
PHIL PONCE: Col. Watson, what is it like to fight one of these fires on the ground?
A very hot and dangerous work.
COLONEL JIMMY WATSON, Florida National Guard: I've been up close to three or four of them. It's very hot, very dangerous work. The National Guard has been primarily-we've been in the support role since we got involved in this thing like the first week of June. The heroes here are the firefighters, and we've got some helicopter crews involved in the National Guard that we consider heroes too. They've been hauling water with our Black Hawk helicopters and the buckets since about June 6th.
PHIL PONCE: How effective is that, to dump water from helicopters, Colonel?
COLONEL JIMMY WATSON: It looks pretty effective when you see it. I'm not a professional firefighter, but in a lot of cases that's the only way we're able to fight some of these fires. And I've watched the National Guard helicopter crews plus some of the other crews from the Division of Forestry and some of the crews from outside that stay here, and they've been the only people sometimes that have been able to save some of the homes when the fires get right up to the homes; they're able to come right in and put the water and sometimes a chemical right down along the edge of the house. They've been very effective.
PHIL PONCE: Colonel, what's the most dangerous thing about fighting fire on the ground? Is it, what, the unpredictability of it? How would you describe it?
COLONEL JIMMY WATSON: Yes. I think the unpredictability. Again, we're not professional firefighters. We usually have a fire boss with us. We have about 160 National Guardsmen who we've got in training to fight fires. We have to have somebody with us that knows exactly what they're doing. The times I've been up close to the fire it's almost like it's a living being, and you've got to know what you're doing, because sometimes it'll be laying down, as they say, and then it's up, and it'll be on top of you. It'll travel fifty or a hundred yards in just a matter of seconds, so it's a dangerous business.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Webster, how do you describe the dangers involved in fighting fires like these?
JOHN WEBSTER: Well, this type of fire that we're dealing with-when you have two or three of them that can come together where they get in close proximity to one another, you have some very erratic winds, and a lot of times you'll have a firestorm that will just blow up. So anybody that's in line of that fire can get themselves trapped. One of the things that we constantly remind our people of is know your escape routes, know when to back off. I mean, we're not trying to fool anybody. We're not going to put the fires out. Mother Nature is going to put the fires out. We're going to have to try to keep them from going into subdivisions and destroying life and homes until we get the substantial rains that we need. It's kind of like triage in the medical industry. We're going to the worst fires, the ones that have the highest potential for catastrophic loss, and that's where we're putting our efforts.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Webster, when you say that you're really not putting the fires out, are you saying that the folks who've been allowed back into their homes, those areas, the fires are not completely out?
JOHN WEBSTER: No, the fires are not completely out. We've got them cooled down, and we're trying to construct lines now around the fires and put as much water 100 feet back as we can to hold them inside those lines. Now a lot of the people are upset that they've been evacuated one, two, and even three times, and if the fire scenario changes, if the weather doesn't come in to help us out, they could easily be evacuated again, but, I mean, this is their home; they want to go back to it. We're not going to allow them to go back into a situation where it's real dangerous for them.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Webster, have there been some moments that you've seen or heard about that have been particularly dangerous, particularly of concern to you?
JOHN WEBSTER: Yes, sir. Flagler County, when we had three fires that approached one another-and there was serious concern that the whole county could go up in flames, that we could have a fire catastrophe in Flagler County. The decision was made on the governor's level, with a local sheriff, that in the best interest of everybody we should evacuate all of the people. That night, we told our people to back off the fire, to get away from it, make sure you knew the escape routes, because if you had to, you had to leave that county.
PHIL PONCE: Colonel Watson, listing to Mr. Webster describe the situation, it seems like really it would be impossible for any amount of personnel or material to control this. Do you sort of feel like you're winning the battle, or do you think you're holding it at bay? How would you describe it?
Col. Watson: "It's going to take substantial, persistent rain over a long, long time period to put these fires out."
COLONEL JIMMY WATSON: Phil, I'm here on the ground in Flagler County right now, and we've just gotten rain. That's the reason I'm in this rain gear. But these fires are not going to go out by anything, I don't think, any of us will do. It's going to take substantial, persistent rain over a long, long time period to put these fires out. I just drove down I-95, and I've been in the area all day and over in the helicopter, and there are still fires burning here. There's still a great deal of smoke, and these fires will continue to burn, I think, until we get eight to ten inches of rain.
PHIL PONCE: Colonel Watson, looking back on your experiences, how does this compare to other natural disasters that you've been involved with?
COLONEL JIMMY WATSON: I was an extra battalion commander in the Florida National Guard during Hurricane Andrew, and that was a catastrophic event down there. This approaches some of the same proportions when you fly over the area and see mile after mile of burned out timber, and even the homes we've lost, I think we've lost approximately 40 homes here in Flagler County, and it's a tremendous human tragedy here.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Webster, do you folks have enough resources? Do you have enough firefighters? Do you have enough equipment?
JOHN WEBSTER: Right now, we've got over 4,000 people on this fire. Give you an idea-we've got, I think, twenty-six or twenty-seven helicopters and tankers that we're using on the fires. What we're in need of right now is more tractor plow units to construct line around the fires. Volusia County, which I think lost some 94,000 acres, there's probably 300 miles of fire line that has not been constructed in that county alone.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Webster, Colonel Watson, thank you both very much.
JOHN WEBSTER: Thank you.