Wednesday, July 04, 2018

The Year the State of Florida Tried to Burn Down

The series of fires that ravaged Florida in 1998 began in mid-May and continued through the early part of July. During this period approximately 500,000 acres were burned in approximately 2,200 separate fires. (U.S. Fire Administration/Technical Report Series Wildland Fires, Florida – 1998)

I’ve spent at least a year’s worth of days in a State Emergency Operations Center (EOC), working a variety of disasters, but July 3, 1998 ranks as one of the most serious and dramatic episodes in my career.

In 1998, I was to spend six months in the Florida State Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee responding to a seemingly unending series of disasters. The tornadoes were in February, and the flooding in north Florida persisted through March and April. The wildfires started in May but didn’t draw us into the State Emergency Operations Center until June. And then, of course, in October, there was a hurricane.

The President signed a disaster declaration on June 18th, authorizing federal assistance to help Florida fight the fires. On June 21st the Florida Division of Emergency Management, the Florida Division of Forestry, the U.S. Forest Service and FEMA created a Unified Area Command at the State EOC in Tallahassee.

I was in the State EOC when FEMA and all these state and federal firefighters moved in. As one of many cogs in Emergency Support Function #11, Food, Water and Ice at the State EOC, I was occupied with acquiring food, water and ice for the brave firefighters in the field. Fires were raging throughout the state, but they were threatening homes on the East Coast around Volusia and Flagler counties.

The State ESF #11 crew at the State EOC in 1998; from left Pam Hughes (then with the Salvation Army), myself (seated), Gloria Van Treese (Lead for State ESF 11 and my boss), George Kolias and Jim Guerry.
On July 1st and 2nd the fires jumped across I-95 and other natural firebreaks in several locations as they moved toward the east. The fires threatened to sweep into several urban areas and residential subdivisions. An intense battle raged for three days, as the flames consumed dozens of structures. In Volusia County the fires reached built-up areas of Daytona Beach and Ormond Beach. On the afternoon and evening of July 2nd flames consumed 51 dwellings in Palm Coast in Flagler County. In northern Brevard County 36 homes were destroyed during the same period. (U.S. Fire Administration/Technical Report Series Wildland Fires, Florida – 1998).

Fire damage in Volusia County in 1998.
As the July 4th holiday approached they canceled the big race at the Daytona Speedway and the state of Florida ran out of bagged ice. I know for a fact that there was no ice because I spent the better part of a morning calling every single ice vendor in the state, without success. This is when I rediscovered the awesome power of the federal government during a disaster. I reported this problem to FEMA and, after some magic beans, rather magic pieces of paper were signed, two truckloads of bagged ice were dispatched from Michigan to Florida.

Why Michigan? I have no idea. Lowest bidder, or something.

When I walked into the State EOC the morning of July 3rd, I knew something big was going on. Governor Lawton Chiles was there, but that wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was that the Cabinet was there, a Senator and several Florida Representatives in the U.S. Congress. I don’t recall (I’m trying to be factual where I can) which of our two Senators were there, Republican Connie Mack or Democrat Bob Graham, but Graham was running for reelection (which he won) so I think it was him. Never before, or since, had I seen so many high level elected officials in a State EOC.

Their presence was driven by the events of the previous 2 days:
To the north of Daytona Beach, another group of major fires was burning in Flagler County. Approximately 50 structures were lost in the large unincorporated community of Palm Coast on the afternoon and evening of July 2nd when the wind pushed the flames and burning embers into populated areas. The following morning reconnaissance reports indicated that these fires had the potential to join together and create a giant firestorm. If this had occurred, it could have wiped out Palm Coast, the town of Bunnell and several similar communities. (U.S. Fire Administration/Technical Report Series Wildland Fires, Florida – 1998).

Florida Division of Forestry workers doing the hard, dirty work in the Florida heat and humidity.
The Bigwigs had all arrived for the 0830 morning brief and some of the State worker rabble who work at the front of the EOC were cleared out to make room for the guests. The State Meteorologist started off with the weather brief and immediately made clear the seriousness of the situation.

The high temperatures, relatively low humidity (for Florida) and “sea breezes” expected from the Atlantic had the potential to create a firestorm in Flagler County. For that reason the Governor was ordering an evacuation of the entire civilian population of Flagler County, about 45,000 people. The order was to be announced that morning, within minutes, and we were told we would be responsible for coordinating the evacuation.

I turned to a comrade in the EOC and said, “Now I understand why all the politicians are here.”

I don’t remember the co-worker, a seasoned veteran, but I do remember his comment, “The good citizens of the State understand how a hurricane of a tornado might damage their property. But if their house burns down, they get pissed and wonder why somebody didn’t do something to stop it.”

So how did the State Emergency Response Team plan to handle this evacuation? We didn’t have a binder on the bookshelf with “Evacuate Entire County for a Wildfire” printed on the seam. I was wondering what-the-hell-we-were-going-to-do (one of many times in my emergency management career that I was to have that feeling).

The evacuation plan that had been worked out, probably on a conference call with the Counties, was to treat it just like an evacuation for a hurricane. When they announced that in the EOC I immediately felt better. Hurricane evacuation. Good. We know how to do that.

The major roads through Flagler County, Interstate 95, US1 and Florida A1A, all run north and south, parallel to the coast and within a few miles of the Atlantic Ocean. The evacuation required all of the residents to use these roads to travel either north, into St. Johns County, or south into Volusia and Brevard counties, all of which were also at a high risk. The evacuees were directed through these counties to either Jacksonville to the north or the Orlando area to the southwest to get them out of the endangered area. These residents were unable to return to their homes for four days. (U.S. Fire Administration/Technical Report Series Wildland Fires, Florida – 1998).

At lot happened to me the rest of that day but I don’t remember much - probably because the evacuation went smoothly. There were, of course, a few glitches. I do remember hearing that the population of a retirement home was evacuated to a shelter in Gainesville, where they were given sack lunches consisting of peanut butter sandwiches and an apple.

In the next few days I once again witnessed the awesome power of the federal government in action during a disaster. At the request of the State of Florida FEMA procured from the U.S. Air Force 12 Lockheed C-5A Galaxy sorties that flew 78 pieces of firefighting apparatus from California to Jacksonville Naval Air Station, where they were off loaded and made available to fight the fires.

FEMA workers in the Florida State EOC during the 1998 response.
But by then the crisis was over. The weather changed, and it started to rain. The exhausted firefighters were finally able to rest.

The events that occurred in Florida during June and July resulted in the nation’s largest deployment of wildland and structural firefighting resources. More than 10,000 fire fighters were involved in the operations, which utilized almost all of the deployable wildland fire firefighting resources in the United States. The air operation was the largest ever conducted. It is also believed to be the largest commitment of structural fire fighters to a wildland interface situation. (U.S. Fire Administration/Technical Report Series Wildland Fires, Florida – 1998).

And I and the rest of the State EOC crew were also able to rest. We didn’t return to the State EOC until October, when Hurricane Georges visited the Panhandle.

During the 1998 response: I had my foot propped up while I was talking on the phone when I felt someone pinch my toe. I looked up and it was Governor Chiles. A newspaper photographer captured the moment and let me have the image.
The elections in November saw Bob Graham re-elected for Senator. Jeb Bush defeated Buddy McKay to become our new Governor. Governor Chiles, “Walking Lawton,” died of a heart attack at the Governor’s Mansion in December. Buddy McKay, who lost the Governor’s race, was to serve as Governor the final 23 days of Chiles’ term.

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