Local News

NC Firefighters Trying to Help Clear Florida Smoke

Posted June 28, 1998

— Hundreds of Tar Heel firefighters are battling Florida wildfires on two fronts. Volunteers and firefighters are protecting homes and businesses, while the North Carolina Forest Service battles flames in wooded areas. WRAL-TV5'sStuart Watsonand Photographer Richard Adkins joined a forest service strike team in the Florida woods this past weekend.

They returned with a telling souvenir from their trip -- the weather forecast from the Daytona News-Journal, which calls for "some smoke, chance of rainstorms." The fact that the weather forecast calls for smoke says a great deal about how widespread the fires have been.

Lightning touches off spot fires, but the storms have brought little rain. Smoke and the smell of burning pine is all around.

N.C. strike teams went to Florida as a part of the Southeastern Compact - a kind of "you-help-me-i-help-you" agreement among 13 states.

The N.C. Forest Service will bill the state of Florida for that help, but a spokesman says that bill will probably be passed along to FEMA - the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Carl Johnson of the N.C. Forestry Service says "It's okay for this fire to amaze you. It's okay for this fire to astound you, but don t let it surprise you."

Johnson and his strike team know this fire better than many fire fighters, because it's a lot like fighting fire back home.

"That s a big part of why we are here," said Johnson. "We've got experience with this type of fuel, this type of wind, this type of terrain."

High winds mean it's impossible to predict which way the fire is going to go, and with the head of the fire moving towards the road, the strike team fights fire with fire.

Firefighters set these back fires to take away the fuel, the underbrush. So when the main fire heads that way, it won t have anything else to burn, but even if the back fires succeed, the main fire finds other ways of traveling.

"This is the big problem," says Johnson, referring to light pieces of debris floating in the air. "It's all part of what has burned. It's been lifted by the air going up with the fire and floats back down. Most of it goes back out before it hits the ground, but it doesn't t take but one in a billion to cross the line and you turn around and see a spiral of smoke coming up and here we go again."

Firefighters start every moring before sunrise and end each day after sunset. The next day, they get up and do it all again, same job different place.

"Standard tour is two weeks and we been extended to 21 days. I have every reason to believe this will be going on when we leave," says Johnson. "But we'll try to bring in some others to do what we are doing."

The fire fighting Tar Heels are sticking to the battle with the enemy contained, but not beaten. The only thing certain is what they'll be doing tomorrow.

"I don t know where I'll be or when," says Johnson. "But there'll be some more fire for everybody I promise."


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