tampabay.com

By land and by air, forces fight fire

By JAMAL THALJI
Published May 16, 2007


LAKE CITY - Go to the front lines of the intense Bugaboo fire, up where you can see the flames, and you won't sense any fear.

For the wildland firefighters, it's about camaraderie and enthusiasm.

It's not just a job. It's a great job.

"It's adrenaline for them, " said Florida Division of Forestry supervisor Larry Morse, 53. "They love it; they love their jobs."

The job was never more important than on Tuesday. Firefighters and helicopter pilots joined forces to contain one of the dangerous breaches that erupted the day before.

Florida's largest forest fire has already burned through 110, 000 acres. The U.S. Forest Service said Tuesday that more firefighters, support personnel and equipment will be committed to the battle in the Osceola National Forest.

Officials estimate 50 percent of the blaze is contained - on the east side. The problem is the volatile western front, which has put Columbia County on edge all week. But Tuesday was especially tense as firefighters battled three breakouts of the fire lines just miles from populated U.S. 441 N.

The fire came as close as a mile to a home, officials say, until they pushed back.

Here's how they did it:

First they attacked with bulldozers, massive machines racing into the forest to cut a deep channel around the hot spot.

The fire line was three passes of a bulldozer's 10-foot blade. Trees, plants, anything that can burn had to go. They were starving the fire of fuel and digging pathways for brush trucks to come in and soak the fire's outer edges.

Overhead helicopter pilots made sortie after sortie, flying as close as 100 feet to drop hundreds of gallons of water to cool the breakout.

"The locals had started getting worried, " said Florida Division of Forestry task force leader Bruce W. Smith, 47. "They were thinking it was going to make 441."

And if it had?

"It's a whole new ball game, " Smith said.

That's why officials ordered another round of evacuations Monday night, for the first time on the west side of U.S. 441. Officials said they have ordered 725 homes evacuated, but they could not say how many people actually left. Those sticking it out were asked to sign releases and to provide information on their next of kin.