MARCO ISLAND — Just because the wildfires that blanketed the area with smoke earlier in the month were not on Marco, it doesn’t mean local firefighters were not in the heat of battle. This year’s wildfire season has been much more active than last spring, and firefighters from all area departments have pitched in to battle the blazes.
“Collier County, so far this year, has had 56 fires from Jan. 1 to today, versus 18 last year,” said Victor Hill, wildfire mitigation specialist for the Florida Division of Forestry. “We still have an active fire season going on. We don’t look for it to let up until the end of June,” when regular summer rains put some humidity into the tinder-dry brush.
The last two winters have had significant freezes, he said, resulting in masses of dead vegetation. A year ago, a wetter than usual spring kept fire damage low, but the plant material remained, and this year, the dry spring created optimal conditions for fires to spread in the backcountry.
“Our drought index is very high,” said Deputy Chief Chris Byrne, of the City of Marco Island Fire Rescue Dept. “Today we’re rated extreme, one of the highest in the state for fire danger. Rain helps, but then lightning brings a lot of problems,” particularly when lightning, but no rain, hits an area.
The massive blaze known as the Slope Fire burned 2,800 acres in Golden Gate Estates, and was responsible for the smoke that blanketed Naples and Marco Island for days at a time. It waas ignited by lightning strikes on April 26.
“There’s a county-wide response plan that involves all departments,” said Byrne. “We deal with the wildland/urban interface, where there are homes on property in wooded areas. It takes a lot of resources to fight those fires.”
What Hill called the “structure departments,” those based in areas filled with homes and other buildings, use as one of their primary resources to fight wildfires is the brush truck.
“We have a brush truck, specifically built to be in the woods,” said Byrne. “It has four-wheel drive, water tanks, and pumps from the vehicle. All the departments have them. We have one, Isles of Capri has one, East Naples has two, the Big Corkscrew department has multiple trucks.”
The Marco department’s truck carries two firefighters, he said, and his department’s personnel and equipment have been kept busy.
“Oh yeah, I’ve been out on all these fires,” Byrne confirmed, working out of a command post on the fireline in the woods. “They have been very challenging, difficult to stop. You get a wall of flame, it travels through the treetops very quickly.”
With brush fires, or wildfires, the Division of Forestry takes the lead, and cuts a fireline ahead of the blaze with bulldozers. The primary job of the “structure departments” with their brush trucks is to defend the line from the oncoming flames. The brush trucks carry 300-750 gallons of water, and refill repeatedly from tanker trucks.
“These fires can ‘spot’ 100 feet to 100 yards ahead,” said Byrne, igniting trees and brush behind the fireline, and making close coordination critical. Division of Forestry and Sheriff’s Office aircraft monitor the fire, and drop water to contain hot spots.
For the Slope Fire, firefighters from all over Southwest Florida responded, as well as Division of Forestry and sheriff’s personnel. Greg Speers of the East Naples Fire Rescue Dept. confirmed his agency’s personnel, led by Capt. Eugene Bogert, had been out in the woods fighting the blazes, along with Isles of Capri firefighters.
“We had over a hundred from multiple agencies, plus a strike team from the state with five dozers,” said Hill. “Partnership with the structure departments is vital. These guys do a phenomenal job. We had at least one apparatus from every department in Collier and Lee (counties).” In an area with 5-600 homes, one home was destroyed.
“We’re not happy about that. The guys are never completely satisfied, but we saved hundreds of homes, and no one got hurt,” he said.
Hill says our district will likely top 7,000 acres burned by the end of June. “Florida has a year-round wildfire season.”