By Tristan Baurick
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
NEW ORLEANS — The long-running swamp fire in New Orleans East has convinced the city’s emergency responders that more training and equipment are needed to deal with what’s expected to be more frequent and intense wildfires in the years to come.
“The situation in New Orleans East is one that is going to have to make us adapt,” said Collin Arnold, director of the city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. “Adapting in the future is going to mean wildfire training and potentially wildfire equipment for the New Orleans Fire Department .”
The NOFD lacks both. None of fire department’s personnel have training in wildland firefighting, nor do they have the basic gear, including hand tools and protective clothing, for battling fires in woodlands or wetlands, said NOFD Superintendent Roman Nelson.
His agency is focused on fires in buildings and other structures. NOFD firefighters depend on large supplies of water from trucks or hydrants — neither of which could be used in the roadless section of wooded wetland where the fire, first reported on Oct. 14, burned for more than a month.
“It was like a moonscape out there,” Nelson said. “Massive holes, uneven ground. We couldn’t get to it.”
The city waited nearly a week before attempting to control the fire. The bulk of the response was left to the Sewerage & Water Board, which used two water pumps to try to flood the charred swamp. Burning trees as well as the dense, boggy soil underneath them, the fire grew to cover 200 acres on a private swampland between Bayou Sauvage Urban National Wildlife Refuge and the Michoud Canal.
Thick, foul-smelling smoke triggered public health warnings, a spike in hospital visits by asthma sufferers, highway closures, and several vehicle crashes that killed eight people and injured dozens of others when the wildfire haze combined with fog in the New Orleans area.
The effort to flood the fire had little impact until the Army Corps of Engineers added five more pumps on Nov. 6. As of last week, the fire was about 90% extinguished and was no longer sending smoke over a large area.
While the New Orleans East fire burned, a similar blaze on federal property in Jean Lafitte drew an immediate response, with helicopter water drops and dozens of trained wildland firefighters who used shovels and other hand tools to churn up and cool smoldering wetland soil. The fire stopped producing smoke during the first week of November.
Hoping for a comparable response to the New Orleans East fire, some New Orleans city council members and residents urged Mayor LaToya Cantrell to declare an emergency. That’s what the city did when a fire burned a New Orleans East wetland in 2011. The declaration by then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu prompted the Army Reserve to send helicopters that poured more than 1 million gallons of water on the blaze.
It’s unclear why Cantrell didn’t take similar steps. Nelson doubts that bombarding the fire with water would have helped much, despite the successful use of the tactic during the recent Lafitte fire and the 2011 fire.
Arnold and Nelson say New Orleans will likely face similar fires in the future.
“This is something we have to prepare for as we see more fires,” Nelson said.
Louisiana summers are getting hotter and drier, raising the risk of wildfires in rural and urban areas, Arnold said.
“Typically with these fires, there’s a lot more moisture on the ground and coming from the sky,” he said. “A lot of the time, they’re put out in hours or days. This (fire) was clearly not that situation, and that’s what we’re trying to prepare ourselves for.”
Louisiana has been suffering through its strongest drought on record. Dry conditions and soaring temperatures through the summer sparked a hectic wildlife season. Several hundred fires burned through more than 60,000 acres of timber and wetlands.
State climatologist Barry Keim said recent months offer “a sneak peek” of what’s to come.
“The conditions happening now let you know it can happen again,” Keim said.
Arnold hinted that wildfire training and equipment may soon appear in city budget proposals.
“These are probably things you’ll see as asks moving forward,” he said.
Nelson doesn’t have a wish list yet. Because wildfire training hasn’t been offered in Louisiana, firefighters would likely have to travel out of state to get it. Basic gear — shovels, Pulaskis and lightweight, flame-resistant clothing — are comparatively cheap, as are wildland firefighting vehicles, which are often lightweight “brush trucks” outfitted with water tanks and narrow hoses. Pricier items might include bulldozers for cutting fire breaks and water pumps for flooding wetlands.
Despite the growing risk, Nelson worries about the equipment gathering dust.
“Each of these fires is different,” he said. “Do we want to spend a lot of money on equipment we might not use? Does it make sense to spend millions on pumps that might sit around for another 10-plus years?”