Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Long night of covering a 17,017-acre wildfire in Central Florida

A firefighter watches the flames at Parrish Park in Scottsmoor.

I've covered several fires in my year of reporting here in Brevard County. But the one that started Feb. 28 and eventually burned 17,017 acres in Mims and Scottsmoor kind of took the cake.

For me, it was 12 hours (3 p.m. to 3 a.m.) of smoke inhalation as the flames raced from well west of Interstate 95 to just east of U.S. 1, closing down both of those major north-south thoroughfares on the Space Coast.

I saw firefighters somehow protect structures as the flames burned on all sides of them. At one point, I was asked to evacuate from my roadside location five minutes before the fire crossed the street.

Fortunately, only one home and a few storage buildings and small hunting camps were destroyed, though two firefighters did suffer second-degree burns.

These are the photos I snapped within the first half-day of the blaze.

All roads giving access to the brush fire were closed during its initial stages. A Brevard County Sheriff's Office deputy directed traffic on U.S. 1 at Aurantia Road in Mims.

I eventually got through the roadblock and took some photos near a cow pasture well east of the eastbound fire.

There's a small plane in this photo -- above the sun, about an inch from the edge of the photo. The Cessna was monitoring the fire from above and directing firefighters on the ground.

This pasture was just south of Stuckway Road in Scottsmoor, the northernmost exit from Interstate 95 in Brevard.

Yet another at the cow pasture.

From afar, I watched helicopters dump water onto the fire.

The sun went down behind the smoke.

Portions of this land would eventually burn. We haven't heard whether any cattle were injured.

These cows got a little spooked as I walked up to the fence with my camera.

The helicopters were operated by the Florida Division of Forestry, which is very skilled in fighting wildfires.

I got closer the blaze here. Behind this BP gas station is the Crystal Lake RV Park, a large community of recreational vehicles in the flames' direct path.

The overpass on the left is Interstate 95. The blaze was on this side -- the east side -- of the highway at this point (just before 8 p.m.).

This exposure is just a few seconds long.

Trees are silhouetted against the glowing blaze.

Stuckway Road was open for a short time, allowing vehicles to go south on the interstate (not north, where the fire was in the median).

At this point, the road I'm standing on is closed. The flames were pretty intense behind the gas station.

I took this shot, just to illustrate where the RV park was located. Embers were landing around me, prompting the deputies to leave and tell me to leave. The fire crossed the roadway five minutes later.

To the south of the gas station, still in the town of Scottsmoor, the flames burned around a ball field at Parrish Park.

The firefighters stood by but didn't really spray the flames. They were there only to fight the fire if it neared structures. If wind-blown embers started "spot fires," they would douse them as well.

Too bad none of these pictures made the newspaper.

This was the only resident who went into the park with me.

The slight streaks at the top of this image are embers flying overhead.

I wanted to tell him, "Shoot it!"

On a residential street adjacent to the park, bulldozers and firetrucks set up around a mobile home. The fire burned about 20 feet from it. A controlled burn last year was credited with eliminating the fuels it needed to reach the home and others in the area.

This water truck is typically used for agricultural purposes -- orange groves, specifically. But in this case, residents used it to fight the fire, which had just crossed U.S. 1 after midnight.

These residents were protecting their buddy's home a few hundred yards east of the eastbound flames. They also sawed down a burning tree because embers from its top were flying off and landing close to the home. Firefighters said the embers were traveling up to a half-mile from the front of the fire, which burned eight miles in eight hours.

The home they were protecting was a beach house that was relocated from Cape Canaveral when Kennedy Space Center was built. So they were saving a piece of history.

The west side of U.S. 1 was on fire (pictured). The median was on fire. Debris on the roadway itself was on fire. And the east side was on fire. It was all on fire.

This woman smothered a small spot fire on the roadside.

One of the residents heads back to the water truck.

The last photos of the evening were taken south of the blaze. This one shows lights from Florida Division of Forestry bulldozers as they plowed fire breaks. It wouldn't be until Saturday when they finally plowed 30-foot-wide breaks around the entire 48-mile perimeter.

This was the burned landscape along Stuckway Road on Tuesday.

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