Tower, Forest Service troops are Florida’s sentinels and protectors

Caloosa Belle/Chris Felker
FFS Wildfire Mitigation Specialist Melissa Yunas shows how the FLBurnTools app works on a computer in the Palmdale office.

PALMDALE — The Florida Forest Service’s fire observation tower dominating the scrubby, pine-and-palm-dotted landscape of central Glades County was built decades ago as one of the first early warning systems designed to detect and assist in suppressing natural disasters. But it’s still a crucial tool today for protecting lives and property against wildfires.

Although many Floridians might consider wildfire more a threat to their vacations out West than their own home territory — and certainly the risk to human life and limb from that natural phenomenon has become a scary, sobering spectacle from the West Coast in recent years — the risk here is real as well, just different. The FFS’s over 100 towers and 1,200-plus employees constantly stand ready to prevent wildfires from happening and to combat them if they do.

Fire towers in the Sunshine State all are around 10 stories tall, or about 110 feet, to provide clearance above the pine trees so, from that vantage point, spotters who’re also firefighters can see smoke from blazes 20 or more miles away on a clear day, and also observe impending weather changes that might bring lightning — the threat always lurking in Florida that starts many, if not most, wildfires here. Then they use equipment and maps provided to plot the location; check the list of authorized fires and any prescribed burns in the region through the FFS’s real-time, interactive mobile phone and computer application called FLBurnTools; and, if the smoke’s source is deemed an actual wildfire, consult with spotters at the other regional FFS stations and towers to determine the exact location and dispatch firefighting crews there. It sounds like an involved process, and it does require a lot of training to become a wildlands firefighter; some of them then instruct the next generation of firefighters. But it actually can go fairly quickly.

The tower and FFS forestry field unit at Palmdale sit on land at the southwest corner of the junction of U.S. Routes 27 and 29 that’s leased from Lykes Bros., one of the largest landowners in the county. The Palmdale tower is among about 110 that are either owned by the state, a county or private owners; but, because of newer technology, some no longer are needed to spot wildfires in the state known as “the Lightning Capital of the U.S.” and thus are being sold off.

(There’s a list of recognized historic towers nationwide kept by the National Historic Lookout Register, and Florida is home to 24 of them including the inactive one close to Archbold Biological Station, Red Hill Fire Tower in Highlands County, but the one at Palmdale isn’t on it. Situated on the Wales Ridge, the state’s north-south backbone, it overlooks the headwaters of the Everglades and was last regularly staffed in 1999. Okeechobee County’s tower is operated by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, FFS’s parent agency, and is 100 feet tall.)

Palmdale tower not expendable
Although it’s been there for at least 50 years and probably somewhat longer, FFS District 16 Wildfire Mitigation Specialist Melissa Yunas says, this tower in not in any danger of being inactivated. Towers in some places are not as necessary as they used to be “because of people everywhere, and airplanes, flying all the time and calling it in to help us out, and there’s actually thermal imaging that we can find fires from remote locations,” said Ms. Yunas.

Senior Fire Ranger Danny Callahan jumped in to add that there are satellites now, put in orbit for the National Weather Service, which are equipped with high-tech cameras and sensitive instrumentation for detecting sudden or dramatic temperature increases in localized areas, which could indicate wildfires.

“We still use our tower,” said Ranger Callahan, “and we’ll probably still use ours this year, because we don’t have a pilot.” Added Ms. Yunas, the Forest Service is still “very active in the three that are in place because they’re rural areas. And yeah, our pilot just retired about a week ago, so we’re definitely going to be until that next person is hired and trained. We think it’s really important right now.”

Although she said the tower is not manned anywhere near all the time, the station is daily, 8 to 5, 365 days a year. Mr. Callahan said there are 10 people between the Palmdale and its sister Sebring office to provide staffing flexibility.

Dry season a time for vigilance
“We’re manning the fire tower when the fire activity level for us is at a three or higher,” Ms. Yunas said. “That’s when fire danger is above 500 on the Keetch-Byram Drought Index; that’s one thing. That’s when we start manning,” she said, quickly adding that there are several different criteria. Mr. Callahan said, “That’s when-ISH we start, but there’s multiple triggers that can — if we have multiple fires. The drought indicator and how many fires we’re getting are usually the two key indicators.”

With the KBDI the day of our visit at right about 500, “it’s a little crispy now, but not totally crispy yet,” meaning the ground vegetation and trees, but the dryness steadily builds in the run-up to winter around here, advancing in spurts whenever there is frost. “You never know, it could be two weeks,” Ms. Yunas said, before the fire threat really begins to spike. “You know, the frost really kills the vegetation. And then if we don’t receive any rainfall for the next two weeks, then we’re going to be running immensely. So it really is a combination of weather and people actually igniting vegetation.”

There have been some small wildfires reported so far this season, but dry season is just beginning, the two noted. So far in 2018, she said, there had been 34 fires that burned 693 acres, with well over 50 percent occurring from February through April. “In 2017, we had 60 wildfires, 8,000 acres,” she said, explaining “that’s probably due to weather; it’s all about weather.” Mr. Callahan interjected that “it’s either La Niña or El Niño; one gives us bad fires and one makes it wetter.”

In any case, their No. 1 goal is to protect human life and property, and they’re working or ready to do that, in alliance with many cooperators and partners, pretty much 24/7/365. It’s a job that grows in importance to all Floridians every year as the winter holidays approach and drier weather sets in.
The landscape is “already drying out,” warned Ranger Callahan. “It’s not even Christmas and (the drought index is) already 500 here. That’s moderate, getting to the serious range.”

Chris Felker can be reached at cfelker@newszap.com

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