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Containing the flames

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Local forest ranger helped fight Florida wildfires

By Stephen Lega

A local forest ranger stepped up to help out the Sunshine State for a few weeks this summer.

"The folks down that away were really happy to see us," said Jody Benningfield, a forest ranger and technician with the Kentucky Division of Forestry

Since the start of the year, Florida has experienced more than 4,300 wildfires that have affected nearly 278,0000 acres of land, according to the Florida Forest Service. Through an agreement known as the Southern Compact, they are able to call on forest rangers from 13 states to assist when the wildfires are particularly widespread.

Ralph Crawford, an assistant fire chief with the Florida Forest Service, said his state has a fire season that lasts all year.

Most years, Florida's firefighters and forest service employees can contain the fires. This year, the state is being affected by the La Nina weather pattern, which means the conditions are hotter and dryer than an average year, Crawford said.

That means lightning strikes can lead to much bigger problems, and Florida has more lightning than any other state in the nation.

Florida's plants also stay green and contain oils that allows them to burn "really hot, really fast," Benningfield said.

One example of that was the Espanola fire. Lightning strikes in that area of Florida causes a wildfire that affected more than 5,100 acres.

That was also one of three fires that Benningfield helped to contain when he went to Florida from June 15-30 as part of a strike team from Kentucky. Strike teams include 10 or 11 individuals with around six trucks equipped to carry 200 gallons of water.

Benningfield said the strike teams worked in conjunction with bulldozers. The bulldozers would create a line around the fire to contain it, and as the fire neared that line, strike team members worked to prevent it from jumping the line and continuing to spread.

"When things torched out, [the flames] could be as tall as that telephone post out there," Benningfield said.

Some fires are easier to contain than others, and when needed, the strike teams had air support from Blackhawk helicopters.

"If the fire got hot around the line where we were patrolling, then they would come in and dump out a quick 500 gallons to cool it off so we could get a better grasp on it," Benningfield said.

Safety was the main priority for everyone involved in the fire containment efforts throughout Florida, but two forest rangers were killed during the time Benningfield was there. They were not fighting the same fires as Benningfield, but it was a reminder of how dangerous their work could be.

The wildfire also forces wildlife to flee their habitats.

"We run across some wildlife. There was a black baby bear. He didn't look like he was going to make it," Benningfield said. "Alligators and the cottonmouths were bad down there."

By the time Benningfield and the other members of the Kentucky strike team left, the three fires they worked on had been contained.

That doesn't necessarily mean the fires were completely out, however. Crawford said the Espanola fire was still smoldering as of last week.

Now that he's back in Kentucky, Benningfield is back to his regular duties. Those include doing logging inspections and education programs in area schools. During Kentucky's wildfire seasons (Oct. 1 to Dec. 15 and Feb. 15 to April 30), he is at the ready to help contain fires closer to home. With the ice storm from a few years ago, several fallen limbs remain potential fuel for a forest fire, Benningfield said.

He added that local fire departments have also made his job a lot easier, responding quickly and preventing fires from spreading to the scale he saw while in Florida.

"It seems that they can always get it before it gets to that scale," Benningfield said.

This wasn't the first time Benningfield has been to another state to assist with wildfire containment efforts. He has been to Florida three times, but he has also assisted in Idaho, Montana, North Carolina, Texas and Wyoming.

Looking back on this year's effort, he said what he remembered most was the gratitude of the Floridians toward the out-of-state teams. Benningfield said one of the fires they fought was near a retirement community, and the smoke could be problematic for the residents.

"They were really appreciative, as far as honking horns and just waving and thanking us," he said. "The people down there, you can't say enough for 'em, super nice."