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Firefighters reflect on historic Pa. forest blaze

| Saturday, April 13, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
In this April 2012 photo, smoke billows from above the tree line near the entrance to Hopewell State Park along Harmonyville Road in Pennsylvania. The wildfire spread quickly due to strong gusty winds, threatening homes and forcing partial evacuations in some areas. April 9 marked one year since the fire began. Before it was over, the fire went from 10 acres to 741, but no structures were lost and no one was injured.
In this April 2012 photo, firefighters walk along Harmonyville Road to gain access to a fire scene. The wildfire spread quickly due to strong gusty winds threatening homes and forcing partial evacuations in some areas.

BIRDSBORO — A year ago, Easter Monday began as most do: a reluctant trudge back to work in sunny spring weather after the holiday weekend.

When Easter Monday ended, however, things were decidedly out of the ordinary in a section of Berks and Chester counties.

Dozens evacuated their homes while others hiked through woods on a black hilltop on the county border with helmets, axes and fire extinguishing equipment amid a red, unsettling glow visible for miles.

Tuesday marked a year since the French Creek forest fire began on April 9, 2012. Sparked by downed trees blown onto power lines running through the Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, the blaze would become the longest active fire operation in Pennsylvania's history and involved hundreds to finally put it out two weeks later.

Before it was over, the fire went from 10 acres to 741 but, amazingly, no structures were lost and no one was injured.

“The winds were maybe 20 to 25 mph, gusting to 30 to 35,” said Union Township Fire Marshal Bobby Erb.

Wind coupled with other factors made the forest fire possible.

“The conditions were dry and windy with lots of downed fuel from last winter,” said Eric Brown, manager of French Creek State Park. “It was just perfect conditions.”

Quite a few brush fires, mostly small, were reported in the area that day, about a dozen in Montgomery County alone.

In fact, there was another fire that burned in French Creek that Monday unrelated to the one which eventually consumed much of the park's eastern section.

On his way to the first fire from a contracting job in Kimberton, Erb found the second, already burning more than three acres.

“It was very apparent that this fire had a good start,” Erb said. “That fire might have been burning for half an hour before I discovered it. It was going.”

The William Penn District manager in the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry, Joe Frassetta then saw the smoke from his office window on the western end of the park, beyond Hopewell Lake. He decided to “investigate.”

When he arrived, fire crews were preparing to go into the woods after the fire. Some of those crews actually diverted while responding to the smaller blaze at the fire tower, Erb said.

“The wind was so high, the fuel was so large, since the area was so large, we knew we had some trouble ahead,” Frassetta said.

The freak 2011 Halloween snowstorm had knocked down a lot of dead trees and branches, and the following months brought little precipitation. The park, as a few officials described it at the time, was a “tinderbox.”

What made it so scary was the fact that just on the park's eastern edge was St. Peters Road, lined with houses.

“We could smell it, first of all,” said Renee O'Brien. Packing up her belongings, O'Brien grabbed her computer and hard drives with pictures, as well as a bin of photo albums and the family dog. “They decided to stay with friends in West Chester.

“That's when it became real,” she said. “We had no idea when we'd be allowed to come back.”

And because of the strong winds that day, getting a helicopter in the air was dangerous.

“The biggest concern was we couldn't get an aerial view of where it was at,” Brown said.

Through much of the first day, crews could only chase the fire. Without a view from above, it was hard to predict where it would go next.

More than 30 companies were involved in the blaze from as far away as New Jersey. Special wildfire units were called in to supplement the local volunteer crews that worked in shifts. It wasn't until April 22 when the fire was officially announced as extinguished.

“I don't think there was a lot of recognition that this could happen in southeastern Pennsylvania,” Brown said. “We need to be prepared for that. We need the public to be aware.”

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