Firefighters reflect on historic Pa. forest blaze
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.”
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.