Wayward flares set Double Bluff wildfire

"Photo: Firefighters walk over 30 feet of blackberry bushes on a ladder stretched out like a by Robert JobeTwo marine flares shot off on a lark by an 18-year-old man set a portion of the Double Bluff grasslands burning out of control Wednesday.Nearly every available truck and volunteer firefighter attached to a Fire District 3 station turned out at about 3:30 p.m. Wednesday to fight the blaze. When they arrived at the scene, firefighters found two widely-separated fires burning in the tidal marsh behind homes on Double Bluff beach.Fighting those fires proved to be a logistical nightmare, said Fire Chief Don Smith. His volunteers first had to build a 30-foot-long ladder bridge from the road to the wetland to make it down a steep embankment and over a thick patch of blackberries. Then, with hundreds of feet of hose in tow, they had to wade through tall cattails and grass toward the fires.I could occasionally see a helmet over the marsh grass, Smith said.Firefighters got one fire, which was near the road, under control quickly. But a fire burning nearly 300 yards from the road where a second flare had landed proved more troublesome. At the extreme range of the district's truck-mounted water cannon, the fire was hampered little by efforts from Double Bluff Road. As volunteers dragged hoses toward it through the tall grass and knee-deep muck of the wetland, the fire spread with the help of a strong breeze, shooting tendrils of flame out in several directions. Smith said he could not safely put firefighters in front of the fire to cut it off because the potential for a sudden flareup was too great. So his men and women were forced to hose the flames down from behind.By 5 p.m., FD 3 personnel were fighting three acres of flames spread over about 20 acres of ground. The blaze was bad enough to draw a fire team from the state Department of Natural Resources. Armed with lightweight, small diameter hose, the small DNR crew was a welcome addition to the FD3 effort, Smith said.More than 90 minutes into the wildfire battle, FD 3 had laid more than 1,400 feet of hose along the damp, weedy ground of the wetland -- almost all the hose owned by the entire district. The DNR firefighters added another 1,000 feet of hose to the battle.The voracity of the fire seemed improbable considering the surroundings. Volunteers had to repeatedly empty their boots, which filled with water with every few steps through the wetland. One of the DNR firefighters fell to her armpits in a mucky, wet hole and had to be pulled out by her compatriots. And yet, Smith said, the flames thrived on dry grasses above the water level as peat on the ground smoldered.It took firefighters until 6:30 p.m. to get all the flames under control. District personnel were still putting equipment away at their respective stations at 10:30 p.m. Firefighters returned to the wetland Thursday to put out fires still smoldering in the peat.Smith said the man who shot the flares into the wetland called the fire district office Thursday and admitted his guilt. Smith would not release the man's name, but said the young man went into the wetland with fire crews Thursday to help squelch the last flames. The DNR is investigating the incident.Both Smith and FD 3 Captain Mike Cotton praised their firefighters for their efforts against a fire that was of greater magnitude and complexity than they have seen in many years. Smith also said district volunteers deserve credit for working at an almost unheard of pace during the past three weeks. Volunteers have responded to more than 70 calls since the start of the month.A resident living south of the fire reported a second brush fire at a Deer Lake Road address at about 6 p.m. Wednesday. As it turns out, the caller was deceived by heavy smoke drifting in from Double Bluff. There was no fire."

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