Convoy leaves area to help states get a handle on devastating fires


Jerry Horton, left, a Forest Ranger with the Division of Forestry in Levy County leads a convoy of heavy equipment transports with tractor plow units from Gainesville to Texas on Wednesday.

TRACY WILCOX/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, January 5, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 4, 2006 at 11:44 p.m.
Five trucks loaded with tractors, supplies and forest rangers pulled out of the Florida Division of Forestry office in Gainesville, headed for Texas and other fire-stricken states Wednesday morning.
Wildfires have raced through more than 600,000 acres in New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas over the past week and a half where dry weather and winds have thwarted efforts by firefighters. Flames have destroyed hundreds of homes and killed five people.
About 70 Florida forestry employees, including 22 firefighters, have been sent to the area, most in Texas. Fifteen have been deployed out of the five-county Waccasassa Forestry Center that includes Alachua, Gilchrist, Levy, Marion and Putnam counties.
Tammy Nichols, 39, from Gilchrist County, is part of a 10-member "strike team" that left Wednesday for Texas. Members will operate tractors used to plow fire lines and stop spreading flames.
"Whatever they need us to do is what we're there for," said Nichols. The group isn't expected to return for two weeks.
Forest ranger Cora Clements, 53, of Alachua County also left for Texas. She will be keeping track of the agency's equipment and is being sent to Nocona, Texas, an area that has seen some of the most destructive fires.
A grass fire New Year's Day swept about 13 miles from Ringgold to Nocona, near the Oklahoma border in northern Texas. Flames destroyed most of Ringgold, a ranch and cattle town of about 100 people, according to news reports, leaving just seven buildings on the town's Main Street.
Clements has seen these raging fires before.
She was among those sent to help coordinate efforts to contain the 2002 Biscuit fire in northern California and southern Oregon, the largest in the country that year. Lightning sparked the blaze that burned 500,000 acres.
Huge columns of smoke rose into the air over that fire, Clements said.
"Unless you know what you're looking at, it's just breathtaking. It's a very humbling experience to go out there and fight these fires."
Like Clements, Nichols said she's seen the destruction a raging wildfire can do.
"I've fought fires in '99, in '98 and everything," she said, referring to blazes in northern Florida including the 1998 fire that threatened to engulf the city of Waldo.
In the late 1990s, Florida faced similar drought conditions as areas in Oklahoma and Texas.
Given the current dry weather, Nichols said firefighters in the region hope the situation will improve but are expecting more fires.
Ranger Reggie Lewis, 59, of Ocala, was anxious to get on the road.
"We get nervous because we're not doing anything. But now the adrenaline is flowing," he said, as forestry employees prepared to pull out.
Northern and Central Florida has been able to send employees to help fight fires in other states because the fire risk in these area remains low due to recent rains, said Division of Forestry spokeswoman Ludie Ehlers.
But freeze warnings forecast this weekend will dry out plants. If winds pick up, firefighters warn the danger of wildfires in North Central Florida could increase.
Lise Fisher can be reached at (352) 374-5092 or fisherl@gvillesun.com

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