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Firefighters go to Florida

Andy Bourelle

It’s not often an event in Florida will have a direct impact on Lake Tahoe. However, the fires currently raging in a state more than 2,000 miles away certainly have affected some Lake Tahoe firefighters.

Personnel from all over the country have gone to Florida to help out, and Lake Tahoe is no different.

The Eldorado National Forest and Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit of the U.S. Forest Service have personnel and fire engines, some of which were airlifted by military transport, in Florida helping to fight the series of fires which started around Memorial Day.

One local firefighter, Rick Brower, engine captain for the U.S. Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, said Tuesday via telephone from Bevard County, Fla., that although he is proud to be helping, the work is extremely difficult.

“We’re slammed. We start at 7:30 in the morning and run our operations nonstop until 9 o’clock at night,” Brower said. “It’s hard on you. No doubt about it.”

Brower has been working at an air tanker base in Bevard County since June 22, helping to organize the operation of three air tankers and seven helicopters.

Brower, who has helped fight some of the nation’s worst fires, said the Florida situation easily is one of the worst the country has ever seen, comparable in size to the wildfires in Yellowstone in the late 1980s.

“The thing that makes this different is there are so many homes and businesses in the vicinity of all the fires,” he said.

Brower said he didn’t believe Florida had ever experienced wildfires even resembling this event.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this before. Florida looks like such a jungle that would not burn,” he said. “It’s so green and lush, but the fire just rips right through it.”

Some conditions Brower said the firefighters work in include smoke-filled air, temperatures in the 90s, humidity ranging from 50 to 70 percent and something he has never encountered before – alligators.

“It’s not what we’re used to,” he said. “I would say we’re working in extremely difficult conditions.”

Since the wildfires began in May, Brower said about 2,058 fires have burned approximately 483,261 acres in Florida, destroying 300 homes. Firefighting units from all over the country have responded. About 178 bulldozers, 410 fire engines, 89 hand crews and more than 150 aircraft currently are being used to battle the fires.

“It’s truly a show of Americanism. Everyone’s working together as a team. It’s a national effort,” he said. “I’m pretty proud (to be a part of the firefighting effort). The spirit down here is exceptional. The community here has turned out in full force to support the firefighters.”

The cost of fighting the fires, so far, is estimated to be $116 million.

Although firefighters have made progress recently, Brower said work is far from finished.

“They’re getting a handle on it, but it’s still touch and go,” he said. “With anything like this, you don’t get complacent. If a storm comes in and dumps one or two inches, it could dry out tomorrow and it could start all over again.”

Brower said it would take at least 7 inches of rain throughout the state to extinguish the fires, and he has no immediate plans to leave Florida.

Along with Brower, the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit has five other firefighters in Florida. One of the unit’s four fire engines was airlifted to Florida.

Sending personnel and equipment to parts of the West is a weekly occurrence during fire season, according to Rich Kraushaar, acting fire management officer for the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. Already this year, the forest service has received requests for assistance from Alaska, Texas, Colorado and New Mexico. However, airlifting an engine to Florida is a first. Forest service personnel have been in Florida since the fires started to get out of hand in late May.

According to Public Affairs Officer Frank Mosbacher, three of the Eldorado National Forest’s 11 engines, with accompanying personnel, are now in Florida.

Although Lake Tahoe firefighters are affected by the Florida fires, other residents should not feel any impact. Officials said residents do not need to worry that Lake Tahoe fire defenses have been depleted.

Firefighters from other agencies would respond if necessary, and the area’s wetter-than-normal conditions and late winter have pushed the fire season back.

“We’re in good shape here,” Kraushaar said.

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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