Florida has the dubious honor of being the lightning capital of the country. Where I live in Brevard County, it is common to have a short intense storm along the coastline in the dry season with over a thousand lightning strikes. Unlike other parts of the United States, Florida's wet season runs from June to September and dry season from October through April. Its subtropical climate means we rarely freeze, so vegetation grows year-round into thick forests with heavy undergrowth. The combination of lightning and dry season vegetation are prime ingredients for creating wildfires. Lots of wildfires.
In 1998, a strong winter El Nino created a wetter than normal wet season that led to dense vegetation in the spring. The rains stopped in April and a record dry spell set in until July. The abundance of undergrowth in Florida dried into kindling. When dry thunderstorms full of lightning started, fires ignited all over the state. In record numbers at 80 per day until 2,200 blazes engulfed the state. A record 10,000 firefighters participated in the battle. At the time, I worked for Brevard County’s Storm Water Improvement Division, but as senior staff, my duty kept me on call to join Emergency Management operations for any crisis.
9:00 AM July 3, 1998
Ron walked into my office in Viera and plopped down on a chair. His gaunt face, tobacco-stained blond beard and fingers, and a cup of coffee told me he had lost sleep last night. I knew he had been in constant contact with his boss, the Public Works Director, Henry Minneboo, about numerous wildfire operations in the County.
“How bad is it,” I asked.
“Never been anything like it. The Governor has declared a state of emergency and called in the National Guard to several areas.”
"I watched the TV but couldn't really tell how fast the fires were spreading. The smoke was so dense that helicopters couldn't see much."
“Interstates 95 and 4 are closed and evacuation notices just went out for hundreds of thousands of people anywhere near the fires,” Ron replied.
“Sounds like a hurricane disaster.”
“Pretty much,” he agreed.
"Even out at my place on the barrier island, we had to stay indoors. Just walking from my car to the house after work, I coughed hard in the smoke.”
“Henry’s boys are all hands on deck. They’ve been clearing fire lines and pumping water from ditches into water trucks for two days but keep losing ground. As of now, all employees here at the County Complex are being sent home to prepare for evacuation.”
“What? We only evacuate for hurricanes.”
“It’s bad. Some of the evacuation routes are already closed, so they’re telling us to find a friend on the barrier island and stay with him until the fires are over with. Fire won’t jump the Indian River.”
“Good thing I live in Cocoa Beach on the island. What about me?” I hated to ask but had no choice.
“You and I are going to the Emergency Command Center. Go home and pack your gear to stay for a couple of days.”
“Yes sir, boss.” Here we go again.
11:00 AM July 3, 1998
I had worked Emergency Ops for several hurricanes, but not for fires. I showed up a few hours later at the Command Center, a 45-year-old, 5,550 square foot concrete building in Rockledge that served as permanent headquarters for the Fire Rescue 911 Communications Center. Also, during emergencies, up to 100 representatives from several dozen local, state, federal, and military agencies could be based here. Such as today. And cramped almost as bad as an airplane. Senior staff huddled up in a small office to the rear of the building, talking to state officials and other cities and counties. Bob Lay, the Director of Emergency Operations and a retired military officer, used his war experience to stay cool and calm for this operation similar to a battle. Coffee and doughnuts were in the break room. Lots of coffee. The rest of us occupied a large room crowded with desks, telephones, and lots of pink phone message pads. Being 1998, FEMA had brought some of the few computers in the room and few people had cell phones at that time. Along the walls, televisions and dry erase boards showed statewide and local alerts, road closures, fire locations, and evacuation shelter locations. The nonstop ringing of phones told me this would be a long day.
Fires started with lightening in heavily vegetated woods and agricultural areas of rural western, northern, and southern sections of the County. Farmers and rural dwellers struggled to save their cows and homes. Urban areas in central parts of the County backed up to the western shore of the bay and were not in immediate danger, but fires crept up from woods at the western side of the cities.
I squeezed between two guys into a chair in front of an unmanned phone. My instructions were to answer hotline phone calls. A scan of the boards brought me up to date on fire locations and road closures. I took calls and advised nervous citizens if fires were near their location, which roads were passable, and if staying, they should spray water on their roofs and yards when the fire approached. Cutting down dry trees and bushes near their houses might help save their structures. Many people called complaining about irritated lungs from massive grey clouds of smoke rolling in from the west ahead of the fires. I calmly told them to stay indoors and wear a face mask. Panicked elderly people called requesting help. I took their information and passed the pink slips to a desk manned by police and firemen.
Workers bustled from board to board updating rapidly changing conditions. They had their game faces on, no smiles, no chit chat in this serious situation. Rising midday temperatures and winds spread fire and smoke at appalling rates. Smoke slowed traffic on I-95 to a crawl at many locations. In some places, embers jumped across the highway and flamed up on the other side. Charlie Burton from Public Works sat next to me. I listened as he coordinated movement of his men and equipment with the Fire Department to use his bulldozers and backhoes to cut brush lines along roads and around houses, supplying fuel, and grading paths for fire trucks across fields. The worst fires were along Hog Road in Mims where Eric Citta oversaw the operation of a water-truck that used a water-cannon ahead of Fire Rescue brush trucks. Unlike the firemen, the Road and Bridge men had no protective gear on. He had to build a stabilized shoulder along Grissom Parkway to serve as a staging area for fire trucks. He had an intense situation where one of his bulldozers in Mims became surrounded by fire and smoke before the driver could escape on his slow-moving machine. Those of us around Charlie listened in silence as he talked to the fellow with a radio and directed him to a safe road where a truck waited to pick him up. Charlie saved his man, but the fire ate the bulldozer. Public Works crews and firemen slowly retreated eastward away from raging tall pine woods.
Whether I worked Emergency Operations for a hurricane, tornado, or firestorm, I compartmentalized, closed bad doors, and entered a zone of no emotion, just getting the job done one problem at a time. Pizzas, sandwiches, and coffee were delivered to the break room continuously to feed about 100 people rotating through the headquarters that long weekend. An air of solemn resolution filled the room. Silence filled the room except for background phone conversations, televisions, and the tremble of roof air conditioners struggling to keep many bodies cool. The heat was winning that contest during the middle of the day. Most of us were veterans of emergency operations and knew the crisis would be over in a couple of days. We just had to be professional and work through it. I could go most of a day before collapsing on a cot along the walls for a short nap. There were always citizens needing help and as a public servant, I felt compelled to assist them the best I could before thinking of my minor inconveniences.
Bob Lay occasionally came from his office to give us updates on the worst problems. I-95 and I-4 were closed in several areas, cutting off the major evacuation routes from Orlando. Chaos reigned on the smaller state roads as thousands of people fled with fear through the smoke covered countryside. Volusia County struggled more than any other County as fires crossed over I-95 near Daytona and pressed their relentless onslaught eastward as fierce west winds blew endless embers in swirls through thick forests. Volusia County had fewer urban areas than Brevard County to their south, allowing more rapid eastward advances of roaring blazes. That kept things in perspective for me. No matter how hard Brevard County struggled, Volusia County had it worse.
Ron came by my desk every few hours to give me vital news. There were now 165 airplanes dropping water and chemicals on fires across most of the state. Logistics were crazy at the few airports still open. Overwhelming smoke had closed Orlando International Airport, keeping many people in town rather than traveling for Fourth of July celebrations. All fireworks were banned in Central Florida. Daytona International Speedway canceled a NASCAR race as flames threatened the city. In Flagler County, fire lines also crossed I-95 and marched toward the relatively small St. Augustine. Thanks, Ron. Got any good news?
4:00 PM July 3, 1998
By mid afternoon my brain had turned to mush, so I took a walk outside to stretch my back and legs. As I opened the door, acrid smoke smell overwhelmed me like standing downwind of a large campfire of wet wood. Dense dark smoke covered the western horizon like towering storm clouds; but there were no storms today. Maybe tomorrow the weathermen predicted. Sirens blared nearby. A news helicopter circled out west by I-95. One fast coughing lap around the parking lot and then back inside. That certainly woke me up. In the break room, I gulped down coffee and a sandwich and traded stories with a few others as we watched numbing TV news coverage. Never had we seen complete destruction over such a vast area. After the fires swept through a forest, only blackened stems of trees remained pointing to the heavens in vain. Public Works men and firefighters had saved many houses and rescued terrified citizens trapped in their cars while surrounded by fire. They rescued some panicked horses and cows, but not all of them. The perished animals left gruesome memories in firemen’s minds. Charlie Burton sent volunteers to buy water and ice from open stores and take them to his crews on the front line. FDOT closed I-95 in the north part of the County as well as highways west to Orlando, so we told phone callers to evacuate southward on the interstate.
4:10 PM July 3, 1998
Back to telephone duty, making piles of pink slips and taking them to appropriate representatives around the room. By late afternoon, the winds laid down and the advancing fire lines slowed. Because so many firefighters were spread across the state, there were no reserve men to take the next shift. Our phone bank had developed a list of frightened citizen requests for rescue. Weary firemen returned to temporary bases, snatched a few hours of sleep, then organized their gear and trucks for more rescue duty. Public Works people spent the night refueling and repairing their bulldozers and loading them onto trailers to be trucked to new locations.
9:00 PM July 3, 1998
By dark, the phone lines quieted. I called home and talked to my wife for a while. The television news gave grim reports and she worried about me. I assured her I would stay at the command post. I found an empty cot, took off my shoes, and crashed in exhausted sleep. Nightmares haunted me with visions of hundred-foot walls of fire, endless smoke, and burning animals. Sometime in the night, the air conditioning went out.
6:30 AM July 4, 1998
I woke up early, sweating and still tired. Coffee and donuts helped, but made me hotter. No showers in the building. This would be a long, hot July 4th with no celebrations. Back to the phones. Everyone looked exhausted as they braced for another bad day. Winds started back up in mid morning, fires exploded and raced eastward, and the phone calls poured in. Back to the grind. By noon I turned into a zombie on autopilot. Sweat soaked everyone’s clothes and filled the air. Conditions deteriorated on all fire lines as ravenous flames engulfed everything in the way. Reports from Daytona told of rapidly deteriorating conditions as firefighters retreated in a losing battle.
2:30 PM July 2, 1998
Grim-faced Bob Lay walked out from his office. Silence filled the room. Sweat rolled off his bald head. A hollow-eyed Ron stood behind Bob.
"I have an announcement," he said. He wiped his wet face with a rag as we prepared for bad news.
“We lost Volusia County.”
What? How could we lose a whole County?
“A mandatory evacuation has just been ordered for the whole County. Daytona, the beaches, everyone and everywhere. Their command center, firemen, and first responders must go. Anybody who stays will be overwhelmed by smoke if not fire.”
Shock filled the room. Evacuating whole Counties only happened in the Keys during a hurricane.
“Carry on,” he said and marched back to his office.
I asked Charlie, “How are they going to evacuate?”
“They’ll pull back to the beach and go north on A1A. That’s the only road left.”
There’s always somebody worse off than you. And in this case, it was Volusia County. Except for a few places, I-95 in Brevard County kept fires from crossing to the east. Our bigger cities did not have enough trees and brush to burn. We weren't going to be overrun.
3:30 PM July 4, 1998
An hour later, Bob Lay came out for another announcement. His shoulders slumped, carrying the weight of the world. Ron looked completely wasted, sweat stains covered his shirt.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we also just lost Flagler County. St. Augustine, the beaches, and all people must evacuate.”
Not again. Shock numbed me. Somehow, I kept going, getting the job done. To everyone’s surprise and relief, storms rolled in from the ocean that night and ended most fires, but we had to stay at the Command Center another hot night.
8:00 AM July 5, 1998
The next morning, electricity came back on as Bob Lay announced the crisis had ended and to go home. Back at my condo, a shower, smiling wife, hot food, air conditioning, and soft bed never felt so good.