Flagler County Assist REACT Team 4800
Responds to Fires 1998

     Flagler County Assist got it's jump-start in the 1985 fires that raged through Palm Coast in May of that year. The group was organized about one month before the fires, and was thrown into the worst disaster in Flagler County's history. That was until 1998.

     Many years had passed since 1985. The group became much better organized, and became the best organization of it's type in the county, and one of the best in the state of Florida. FCA became affiliated with REACT International in 1991. This allowed coordination with other groups and good insurance coverage. The Team provides direct support to the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and performs many other functions as well.

     June 5th, 1998, a brush fire erupted in Mondex, also known as Daytona North. The fire consumed several acres but no homes. REACT was called upon to help with this fire. Members reported to the EOC near 7:30pm, and began staffing county radio systems, helping to relay messages to and from the fire crews via the county radio system.

     One member delivered ice & water out to the fire scene. Due to record temperatures that day, near 100 degrees, the refreshments were needed by exhausted firefighters. As the sun set, the wind died down, and between the efforts of the fire service and Division of Forestry (DOF), the fire was brought under control, and members were able to be released form the EOC.

     June 6th,1998 was a quiet morning. Team President, Bob Pickering was scheduled to leave for South Carolina for a vacation. He waited until 10:30 am to leave and everything appeared to be quiet. After he had left, a fire started in a hunting camp west of the Seminole Woods subdivision of Palm Coast. It was quickly contained by Department of Forestry (D.O.F.) crews on the scene. But the wind picked up, and within 20 minutes the fire, now a mile wide, ripped into Seminole Woods. The fire then raced across I-95 and into Graham Swamp. There, it ran out of fuel and died out. In it's wake 23 homes were destroyed.

     At the same time, another fire in central Palm Coast also started behind the Wal Mart store. This further complicated a dangerous situation. Several homes in the area were also evacuated.

     FCA Vice President and 2nd Emergency Coordinator, Troy Harper, was monitoring the situation after being contacted by Marc Bellefontaine (3rd Emergency Coordinator). who was demonstrating a scanner to another member. Marc turned on the scanner and heard how quickly things were turning for the worse. He called Troy, who was already enroute to the EOC. Troy arrived at the EOC just as Emergency Management staff had paged him. Troy declared a LEVEL 4 event, on our scale of responses. (LEVEL 0-5, 5 the highest level) Other members reported to the EOC and staffed phones, radios, and other logistics. The Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service Net (RACES Net) for Flagler County was activated.   Amateur radio operators from the ARES headed to the shelter at Bunnell Elementary School to supply communications. Another operator from ARES was located at the EOC. Both ARES & REACT ham radio operators provided communications using the 147.300 MHz repeater.

     The Team staffed the EOC for two days but by Monday, June 7th, all major fires were secure. This allowed REACT to stand down to LEVEL I, standby. Members staffing the EOC included Marc Bellefontaine, Ray Aguiar, Irene Pickering, Scott Nance, Teresa Ceretta, Eric Pickering, David Moore, Troy Harper, Chuck Bowers, Gary & Petra Catogge, David Garrett, and Kelly Rolleston. Other members who helped broadcast warnings, and helped in the field were Mr. Solitaire, Nick Bereda, Richard Fraisier, Jill & Mike Treki, Fred Hiatt, & Jack Rhine. These names include the entire REACT roster at the time, with the exception of one member who was out of town. REACT members in the field patrolled, looking for spot fires, new fires, and helped run supplies to the different locations.

     On June 18th, and almost every day after that, REACT members were in the EOC, assisting with communications, and other support functions. Over the next week, over 30 fires were reported in Flagler County. On June 21st, over 40 active fires were burning in the county. Mornings became very smoky. Sometimes smoke was so thick, highways had to be closed.

     Several fires merged into one large fire in the south part of the county. This created a fire that would threaten the small community of Rima Ridge again and again into the later weeks of June.

     There was one day when a thunderstorm caused 47 fires to be ignited within two hours in addition to those that were already burning. Most were put out by the rain. Throughout this storm, REACT activated it's Skywarn program and storm spotters relayed reports of severe weather. Petra Catogge and Jill Treki helped run Skywarn Nets during the severe weather, as other members were committed to the EOC. This was the first time that our Team operated both Skywarn and EOC support at the same time.

     While the county fire services were working one fire along the west side of Bunnell, a small pond that air attack was using as a water source started to run dry. East Coast Concrete, at their own expense, used cement mixers to transport water from a hydrant at the EOC to the pond so that the water source would not run out. This is one of many stories to be told about the local efforts in our county. Fire units from around the state began to arrive. From all over the state, units arrived and backed up county fire stations.

     The big problem, though, was yet to come. The south county fire grew into a monster that approached 39,000 acres. On July 1st, it raced through the south part of the county and into Ormond Beach. Once again, FCA members staffed the EOC, operating fire dispatch for fire command.

     Never in our history had so much responsibility been pressed on our Team. Several fires blew up west of Palm Coast, forcing evacuations of the central and western parts of that community. This evacuation affected some of our own members who lived in the threatened area. Despite this, these members who were evacuees, helped get the word out through CB, ham radio and through the neighborhoods in mobile units. But this fire was stopped by heavy air attack before it got into Palm Coast. Evacuees were then allowed back into thier homes.

     REACT Team volunteers dispatched fire units at the direction of EOC Command. Fires raged and threatened residences along the southern part of US 1. Fortunately the fire was stopped there. In Volusia County, that same fire raced across US 1, the FEC Railway, and I-95. It grew into a 39,000 acre blaze, and slammed into Ormond Beach. Fires also raged along State Road 11 and the west central part of Flagler County.

     On July 2nd, things went rapidly downhill. A large blaze, now known as the Ware Fire, roared south and east toward northern Palm Coast. At the same time, several small fires merged into a larger one and headed for the city of Bunnell. The Ware Fire went through numerous fire lines, and across the FEC Railway. As it approached US 1, fire crews scrambled to intercept the fast moving inferno. At this time all "hell" was breaking loose and it was going to get worse. There were fires raging towards Rima Ridge, Bunnell, State Road 11, and Palm Coast. Fire units from all over the region were called to help.

     The Ware fire jumped US 1 so Palm Coast Fire Department and the Sheriff ordered an evacuation of the northwestern parts of Palm Coast. FCA members who were in the area helped get the word out and also helped monitor traffic flow.

     Cell phones and the EOC phone lines became overloaded. Messages were relayed via CB radio to other REACT base stations who had open phone lines to make the calls.

     FCA members in the EOC were paging all available fire units to respond. Amateur radio operators from REACT joined forces with ARES and the Flagler Emergency Amateur Radio Network (a third amateur radio organization) to supply  communications for three emergency shelters.

     The shelters were located in different schools throughout the county. These included two regular shelters, and a Special Needs shelter. A net was established on the 145.470 MHz repeater linking these sites to the EOC.

     The Bunnell fire had the Sheriff's Operations Center in it's path. This forced the evacuation of the Inmate Facility and the Sheriff's Operations Center, forcing all dispatch to be turned over to the EOC. All emergency dispatch was handled by REACT volunteers, operating the county system. The Sheriff's Office quickly set up a mobile command, and backup 911 centers at the Palm Coast Fire Department and at the Flagler County airport.

     Meanwhile, the Ware Fire raged through northern Palm Coast. It crossed I-95, and into northeastern sections of the community. Houses were being lost as firefighters fought a war against this monster. One could stand out in front of the EOC and see smoke everywhere. Heavy air attack would make runs at the Bunnell fire south of the EOC. The Ware Fire could be seen to the north. The sun was blocked out and looked brown. At night, the moon looked yellow and stars could not be seen.

     Throughout the night, an all REACT crew staffed the radio room. Every few minutes another fire call would be sent out. Assistance from other counties had arrived. But the biggest fire was yet to come.

     On July 3rd, 1998 throughout the early hours, REACT members were in the radio room of the EOC. As shifts changed, one REACT member and the Emergency Management Communications Officer staffed the communications room. The amateur radio net was lacking in available amateur radio operators to staff its operation. ARES found one operator to staff the EOC amateur communications post.

     As the morning progressed, the Bunnell Fire had slowed down, although the fire near Rima Ridge still burned. The Department of Forestry had been monitoring the Ware Fire and It became hotter. The fire was thought to be approaching firestorm criteria. Governor Lawton Chiles ordered a MANDATORY EVACUATION of the entire county of 35,000 people. DOF models showed that the possible firestorm could potentially destroy Palm Coast, Bunnell, and Flagler Beach. It could merge with the other four fires and create one huge firestorm, from Daytona to St. Augustine.

     As the evacuation was ordered, FCA members got their families together to evacuate. Several REACT members were able to stay behind to help. They were Troy Harper, Petra Catogge, Gary Catogge, Eric Pickering, Chuck Bowers, Base 16, Nick Bereda, and Jack Rhine. They were helped staff the EOC, helped monitor the progress of the fire, and made notifications. CB 9 was still monitored. The membership of both ham radio groups were forced to leave by the evacuation. We were the only radio group left. Bob Pickering, Team President, was also present, but he is also the Communications Officer for the EOC, so Troy Harper was in charge of the Team.

      There was time for one message sent to Florida Council of REACT Teams via e-mail. The message read "LEVEL 5, Entire county Mandatory Evacuation, God Help Us" .

     One good thing was that the Sheriff's Office was able to go back to their building. So 911 was back where it was supposed to be. The fire spared their facility. The members of Flagler County Assist who were still able to help were deployed in the EOC. Some also helped with running food & supplies to the firefighters in the field.

     The sky grew dark. Several reports were received from REACT members, as well as firefighters, of lightning in the smoke plume. Highways were congested with traffic as 35,000 people fled the county. CB and ham radio were used to broadcast warnings. REACT members who were available in the field helped get the word out and also helped direct some traffic.

     The fire was crossing US 1 again as it raged into the northern part of Palm Coast. David Moore, a junior member, worked an 18 hour shift in the EOC before leaving with his family to head for safe haven. Petra worked over 30 hours helping answer phones and assisting the Public Information Officer. Troy, who had just come off an overnight shift, was called back to the EOC. He arrived after his family was safely out of the county. This was going to be a long day.

     Ash fell like snow across the area. The sun was not to be seen. The sky grew darker. The fire roared into the north central part of Palm Coast as evacuees were just getting out of the way. More homes were destroyed as firefighters were forced to retreat.

     But then the wind shifted and the fire never made it to firestorm criteria. The afternoon seabreeze had come in. As a thunderstorm developed right over the top of the smoke plume, rain began to fall.  Then ash fell with it and the sky turned yellow. This added to an already scary looking sky.

     FCA REACT members organized themselves into shifts to cover the next few days of work. National Guard troops were in the area to provide additional security. A REACT membership list was given to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), who would help our members to get in and out of the secured areas.

     That evening, as the sun went down, Flagler County was a ghost town. In the early morning, at about 2:00 am, a significant event occured. A Florida East Coast Railway train was heard whistling through Bunnell. That meant that the railroad was able to move trains again, a sign that things were getting back to normal.

     July 4th, is normally one of the busiest days for Flagler County Assist, We usually work the Fourth of July fest in Flagler Beach. The event involves a parade and fireworks.  It is favored by many members as one of our best public service details.  This day, a Saturday, was different, It was the day Flagler fought back! Heavy air attack filled the skies to suppress the flames. Task forces from DOF, the Florida Fire Chief's Association, and other resources came in. National Guard and US Forestry experts from as far as Alaska were on scene. Fire trucks from Maryland, Idaho, and other states poured in. DOF command ran the task forces into the fire areas. The weather started to cooperate with no winds, but very little rain. The one bright spot was when Governor Lawton Chiles, on a tour of the county, came into the radio room and shook the hand of each REACT member in the EOC.

     Throughout the day on Saturday, we had to overcome communications problems since the new command had no systems compatible with or adaptable to ours. One operation needed communications so we let them use the 147.300 MHz repeater, A jump team of hams from Manatee County supplied communications for EMS logistics. This repeater, owned by the county, is shared by REACT, ARES, and other amateur radio groups. The only group here was our REACT Team. Another problem was linking the EOC to fire command, which was being run in a separate building. A REACT CB was loaned to them. When a fire call came in from the 911 dispatch, we called Fire Operations on CB 9, They called someone else, who called us back on the 2 meter repeater. We then dispatched a Strike Team on the county fire channels. By the end of the day, communications began to be straightened out. A central phone number was established and put into effect. Now we could call Fire Operations direct. They would handle it from there, though they did need to go back to CB from time to time. Though the "big fires" were down, flare ups were everywhere.

     On Sunday, July 5th, 1998, heavy mop up operations continued. Communications were pretty much straightened out, but problems did occur. We also maintained a link with the Volusia County EOC via amateur radio. REACT hams in the EOC would sometimes send requests to Volusia Coutny assistatnce was needed. Metro Dade Fire Rescue sent a T-comm (communications specialists) unit up to Flagler County. With REACT's assistance they established an emergency UHF repeater on top of the Aliki Towers in Flagler Beach. This UHF system allowed all communications to link together.

     The damage assessment units went out, Two REACT members went along for communications support. Fire units still were chasing down hot spots. DOF was saying that there was still a chance of a firestorm. Reports of hot spots still poured in. FCA members, some now with little sleep for the last 72 hours still staffed the EOC communications. Several in the field spotted for new fires, and even helped stamp out a few. The entire balance of the day was spent chasing down reports of flare ups. REACT members also helped with the running of supplies to needed areas. Marc Bellefontaine was able to return to the area. REACT ID cards were honored by security, and Marc was deployed at the EOC.

     Throughout the day, despite encountering more flare ups, DOF was starting to get the upper hand. The fires were now about 70% contained. The evacuation order still stood, allowing crews to quickly restore power to effected areas and to clear roads. Fire crews were able to quickly respond to fire calls due to not having to fight through traffic.

     The damage assessment teams from the county returned, and had the official count of 51 houses destroyed in Palm Coast & Bunnnell. A decision would be made about whether to allow evacuees to return on Monday. FCA members continued to help with ham radio, fire dispatch, and phones. Conditions were starting to look better.

     On July 6th at 9:00 am came the announcement that all evacuation orders were lifted. A shelter was established at Buddy Taylor Middle School for persons who were affected by the fires. By 11:00 am, the traffic poured back into the county.

     All fire operations were being coordinated by the DOF joint command, allowing FCA REACT members to begin demobilizing. Level of response was lowered back to LEVEL 2, alert standby.  Members who had to leave the county with their families returned, all were cautioned that things could blow up again.

     Task forces continued their attacks on the hot spots. Air support continued to make runs on the fires that were left. One incident that occured was that a logging truck got stuck on the railroad tracks and was struck by a southbound FEC train just north of Palm Coast. Somehow the truck driver survived with minor injuries.

     Into the second week of July, the last REACT members were working in the EOC. After July 8th, no further assistance was required. Things had began to return to normal. But things were still dry and we remained on a LEVEL 2 standby alert.

     After event analysis indicated that the worst case scenario did not occur but did come close. Analysis indicated that all four fires in the county, plus one in St. Johns County, could have merged and raced toward the coast, creating a 40 mile wide firestorm.

     Flagler County Assist REACT has proven itself to Flagler County. We stood our ground with what we had to offer and at some risk to our membership. Our Team President was invited to President Clinton's speech at Daytona Beach. He got to shake his hand as the President praised all workers and volunteers for a job well done.  The President said "The real American heroes are not fighting asteroids in space. They are fighting fires in Florida".

This could not have been done without the cooperation of the three amateur radio communications organizations. Flagler County Assist REACT members volunteered a total of 926 hours of service during the entire period from June to July.

 

     "Flagler County Assist REACT should be commended for service to Flagler County when the need was there. Without their help we could not have done what we needed to do." - Flagler County Emergency Management.