Local News

Firefighters Learning While Floridas Burning

Posted July 5, 1998

— Hundreds of North Carolina firefighters now know first hand how frustrating it is to battle wildfires. The lessons they're learning in Florida could help them contain the flames if a wildfire starts back home.

The State Forestry Service is keeping a very close eye on the Florida fires. There's a good chance the weather pattern that turned the Sunshine state into a tinder box could eventually do the same in the Tar Heel state.

"We have the same types of fuels that have been building up for 12 or 13 years and if we get that same weather pattern in a couple of years, maybe less, we could be looking at the same situation," said fire behavior analyst Carl Johnson.

Johnson returned from Florida Sunday night after 16 days face-to-face with the flames. The experience is a valuable learning tool because the forestry service has been called upon to experiment with different tactics.

"It gave us a chance to try some things. There was very little we could do, so why not try this and see if it works. Not all of it did but some of it did," said Johnson.

One thing that worked very well was N.C.'s new fire fighting plane.

"That plane has already paid for itself in what it's doing now. It's probably going to pay for itself several times over before it gets back here," said Johnson.

The fires may not have been as bad if more of the underbrush had been burned off earlier in the year, but air quality standards prevented that. The state forestry service will do controlled burns in N.C. to try and avoid Florida's disaster.

"The old term 'fight fire with fire' comes into play here because that's exactly what we're doing before the fire starts," said Johnson.

There may be an end in sight for weary Floridians. Higher humidity and scattered showers could begin to bring the destruction to an end.

Johnson says Florida is the worst place in the country for fighting fires.

Predicting the behavior of the fires was especially hard because of all the different wind currents. There are two sea breezes from both coasts, thunderstorms and the currents from the fires to deal with. Johnson said he's never seen so many big fires in so many places over such a long time period. Editor's note:

It's hard to visualize the amount of land damaged by Florida's wildfires.

Nearly a half-million acres have burned, or more than 700-square miles.

if the same thing happened here, that could encompass all of Durham and Orange counties combined.


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