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Regional cooperation protects SW Florida islands

By Staff | Dec 12, 2013

When firefighters in Florida think of wildfires, many are reminded of the massive fires across north and central Florida in 1998 and 2000 that swept through the state and forced thousands from their homes.

Ask those same firefighters about islands off Florida’s coast, and the thoughts turn to white sand beaches, Gulf waters and relaxing conditions.

You do not normally place those two thoughts in the same context – unless you are a firefighter in and around Cape Coral.

Recently, members of the Florida Forest Service, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Cape Coral Fire Department gathered at one of Florida’s most pristine state parks to discuss managing a wildfire surrounded by water. The agencies gathered at Cayo Costa State Park on La Costa Island located directly south of Boca Grande, Florida, 12 miles west of Cape Coral and just north of Sanibel and Captiva Islands.

With nine miles of beautiful beaches and acres of pine forests, oak-palm hammocks and mangrove swamps, Cayo Costa is a 2,426 acre park accessible only by private boat or ferry. In 2008, that restricted access created problems when children started a fire on the northern part of the island. In 72 hours the fire had grown to 120 acres and campers in the park were evacuated to a safe area away from the fire. One structure was threatened during the blaze but was not damaged. Because there was no way to get any fire engines on the island quickly, the Forest Service made over 165 airdrops by helicopter.

David Dearth, assistant park manager with the Florida Park Service, oversees state park land on Cayo Costa, Don Pedro Island, Stump Pass Beach and Gasparilla Island. He and his staff are constantly on guard for fires on the island, especially during the dry season from December through April.

“We have an old brush truck, and we have a water tower and a pump, so we can usually get a jump on a fire,” said Dearth. “But if it gets away, we have to worry about getting campers and visitors out of harm’s way.”

As a result, firefighters from all around the region have worked to pre-plan how to handle a fire where bulldozers will never reach and hand tools and water drops are the primary method of suppression. Those plans include the use of the regional Marine Emergency Response Team, including fire boats from the Cape Coral Fire Department, to provide personnel and pumping capacity to support those firefighting efforts. The primary weapon for that effort is Cape Coral Fire Department’s Marine 7.

Marine 7, based at Burnt Store Marina on the north end of Cape Coral, is a 27-foot Boston Whaler with a 500 GPM fire pump and an endless water supply. Staffed with firefighters and paramedics from Ladder 7, the vessel responds to all requests for service including any fires that might erupt on any of the islands, as well as any boat fires and marine rescue calls. On a recent training mission, Cape Coral Engineer Tony Demos and Firefighter Jeff Silcock reviewed several skills and techniques for both firefighting and rescue.

“We keep the vessel at Burnt Store (Marina) on the lift so she’s ready to go at a moment’s notice,” said Demos. “It takes a few minutes to launch, but once we are out we have access all along the coast.”

Using sonar to track depth, Marine 7 and the crew took off for Cayo Costa, navigating around sandbars and pilings.

“You have to know your way around, especially at night,” said Silcock. “Many people don’t and that’s when we see boats run aground with some getting hurt as a result.”

That was the exact situation back on September 30 after Lee County received an emergency call of a boater who was injured and unable to advise his exact location off the Florida coast. The response effort was led by Boca Grande Fire Department with support from Cape Coral, Charlotte County, Lee County EMS and the Lee County Sheriff’s Office.

According to Cape Coral Fire Lt. James Klein, the boat was reported somewhere north of the Burnt Store Marina and was eventually located by the Lee County Sheriff’s Office helicopter. Rescue craft from Charlotte County and Cape Coral were the closest units and arrived to find the helicopter hovering overhead of a small boat. On board was a male that had suffered a serious head injury and subsequent seizure. Charlotte County personnel made initial contact and were able to load the patient onto their boat. The patient was then transferred to Cape Coral Marine 7 where paramedics took over care during the transport to Burnt Store Marina. A waiting helicopter then transported the patient to a local hospital.

Water depth varies from over 20 feet in the navigable passages to less than three feet around sandbars, making travel hazardous. At night, personnel use radar to search out for other craft in the water, particularly those that are stranded with no lighting.

During the 30-minute trip, the crew discussed various rescue efforts and the ability to be flexible based on the response. Firefighters working the marine units are cross-trained to be ready for emergency responses as diverse as the territory they cover.

Cape Coral Fire Station 7 is situated in a large urban interface, so the station houses a 2002 Dodge brush truck along with the 2006 E-One 75-foot straight stick ladder. The station is also Advanced Life Support capable, so in addition to the structural component, wildfire component and marine rescue component, there are also paramedics stationed there.

“We pretty much run everything,” said Demos. That also includes a full complement of extrication equipment for vehicle rescue. The firefighters at Station 7, just like the rest of the Cape Coral Fire Department, exemplify the Department’s motto: ‘We Do It All.'”

Upon arriving at the state park, Forest Service and Park Service personnel inspected the island’s brush truck and firefighting capabilities as part of a pre-planning effort for responders. Cape Coral firefighters would come in to assist and support, but any major fire on the island would get a specialized “Island Wildfire Strike Team” from the Forest Service, said Dearth.

“Not a lot of boots on the ground, helicopters would do the most,” he said referring to the 2008 fire.

Demos added, “We would bring over personnel and pump from the docks if they needed it.”

The inspection revealed a need for updated equipment and a newer brush truck for the island, as the current unit was a converted military rig over 30 years old. The review was the latest in an ongoing collaborative effort between local and state agencies. Personnel also toured the island taking note of water fill locations and structures that could be threatened should a fire break out.

“Our biggest threat is the open fire,” said Dearth. “The wildfire (in 2008) was started by kids but lightning is another concern. We also have campfire rings but burning debris and an escape is always something we watch for.”

With the inspection wrapped up, Marine 7 departed back to the mainland and took the opportunity to practice rescue skills. Using a life ring, the crew simulated a “man overboard” scenario. With one member at the controls, a second serves as a spotter, continually pointing at the victim and maintaining the visual contact. The operator then brings the vessel to the victim as the spotter calls out directions to approach.

Marine 7, along with the other fire and rescue boats in Cape Coral, is part of the regional Marine Emergency Response Team (MERT), a group of specially trained firefighters from around the county that are called out when there is someone in the water and a rescue boat is needed.

“The MERT has been active for over eight years,” said Cape Coral Fire Battalion Chief Chris Moore. “After 9/11, the local agencies were tasked with supporting search and rescue efforts along with the Coast Guard, and grant funding helped purchase the equipment we needed.”

That equipment includes four marine units strategically positioned around Cape Coral, with Marine 1 and Marine 7 in slips on the water and ready for immediate deployment when needed. The other two are stored on trailers in fire stations near the water and respond to incidents in and canals where the larger boats cannot navigate due to depth or bridges in the city.

Once training was completed and the boat returned to the docks, there was still work to be done. After each launch and return, personnel wash equipment to keep the salt water from creating issues with the motors or craft.

“We make sure she’s ready to go before we leave,” said Demos. “We don’t have time to get our act together when there’s a call.”