Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Gulf State Park fire burns more than 10 percent of park in 4 days

Gulf State Park Fire
Smoke rises from a wildfire that has burned more than 400 acres in Gulf Sate Park near Orange Beach, Ala., Tuesday, June 28, 2011.
ORANGE BEACH, Alabama — Gov. Robert Bentley plans to visit Gulf State Park today, as firefighters work to control a roughly 700-acre conflagration that has burned for more than 4 days.
Light rain and calm winds Tuesday morning and evening helped dampen the swamp floor, lessening the flammability of underbrush and allowing firefighters to contain the fire. However, the scattered showers would not likely extinguish the flames on larger stumps in the forest areas, officials said.
The blaze has scorched more than 10 percent of the 6,150-acre park, dotting large black patches among the trees and burning mile-long stretches from the Orange Beach Sportsplex to camp sites, viewed from a flight aboard an Alabama Forestry Commission Cessna 182.
Thick white smoke covered western sections of the park in Gulf Shores, while scattered plumes billowed into the sky over Orange Beach.
Robert Bentley declares state of emergency for Baldwin County
After Bentley declared a state of emergency for Baldwin County on Monday, the National Guard sent a Chinook helicopter to dump as many as 2,000 gallons of water at a time, as the Alabama Forestry Commission started back burns to keep the fire contained. The Alabama State Troopers also have sent a chopper that drops about 200 gallons.
Bentley was expected to fly over the area today and meet with reporters in the afternoon, according to a spokeswoman.
The state of emergency instructs the Forestry Commission and the Alabama Emergency Management Agency to lend all available resources, while officials seek additional federal assistance, the spokeswoman said.
Much of the park remains open to the public, and the beaches just to the south have been essentially unaffected by the smoke.
Crews were taking steps to ensure that fireworks shows at The Wharf on Friday, Saturday and Sunday continued as planned, as well as a display at the Perdido Beach Resort on Sunday and another at the Gulf State Park Pier on Monday.
Firefighters would check wind conditions, cut fire breaks around The Wharf and patrol the area on the nights of the shows.
ROBERT BENTLEYGov. Robert Bentley will meet with Orange Beach and Gulf Shores officials today to discuss the Gulf State Park fire.

Orange Beach Fire Chief Forney Howard said that park trails closed because of the fire could be re-opened by the end of the week. Organizers moved the Wednesday and Thursday games of a United States Specialty Sports Association youth baseball series — initially planned for the Orange Beach Sportsplex — to Foley and Gulf Shores. Friday’s games could be moved back to Orange Beach, officials said.
During the first 3 days of the wildfire, firefighters said, it smoldered under the peat moss and leaves and crept under fire lines cut throughout the forest. Rain on Tuesday moistened the area that is typically swamp this time of year.
“It’s extremely hard to control and what we have on this fire is some of the heaviest fuel in the state of Alabama,” said Jerry Smith, a spokesman with the Forestry Commission. “So if you want to see what a wildfire can do, this is the place to observe that.”
Partly because of the deep, combustible undergrowth, Smith said, it would take several inches of rain to put out the fire.
The calm, but shifting winds pushed smoke over the shores in Orange Beach and back over Canal Road toward the north side of the park Tuesday.
None of the residents or workers had been ordered to evacuate the area and no roads were closed, as of Tuesday, though officials have suggested that anyone with respiratory conditions take extra precautions.
Investigators still have not determined the exact cause of the fire, but officials believe it started at a park campsite on the east end of Possum Road sometime Saturday morning.
As many as 200 firefighters from Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, the Forestry Commission and departments across Baldwin County have battled the blaze on rotating shifts since Saturday. They are stationed at the Sportsplex and a campground area at the state park.
“Hopefully, we’re going to be over the hump by tomorrow,” Howard told the City Council on Tuesday.

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