For those unfamiliar with the Okefenokee, the concept of a fire in a swamp may seem pretty strange. But when an April 6, 2017, lightning strike ignited the "West Mims" fire in the wildlife refuge along the Georgia/Florida border, it wasn't unusual to the locals. After all, vast portions of the swamp's 700 square miles have been consumed by numerous wildfires, with one of the most significant burns happening just six years ago.
By April 19, the fire had consumed more than 25,000 acres. With yet another hot, dry, and windy day in the forecast, Florida Forest Service (FFS) firefighters operating John Deere "tractor/plows" are on the job, continuing their exhaustive efforts. Barring an escalation, there won't be any direct-attack action today. Instead, they've been assigned to the periphery of the smoldering swamp, away from the center of attention, but where the task is no less important.
Often enveloped in a thick shroud of dust that makes visibility difficult, four 650J and 650K Dozers go about their pre-suppression work. Navigating through row after row of dense pine stands, they plow-under the dried undergrowth and other potential fire fuel. "We're clearing out the area, so if the fire gets in here, we can keep things relatively small," explains Suwannee Forestry Center Manager John Raulerson. The sandy terrain plows easily, and the crews cover close to 400 acres by day's end. It's a scene that will repeat itself many times in the weeks to come.
Fire is a normal part of the swamp's ecosystem. A major contributor to its vulnerability is its composition of a wide variety of combustibles. With shallow water throughout significant portions, deep layers of peat, drought-dried vegetation, and frequently breezy conditions, all of the ingredients are in place for protracted fires.
When the Georgia wildfire reached its peak in mid-May, there were more than 1,000 personnel from 36 states battling the blaze. "We have a cooperative agreement with several states and federal departments to help when fires get this big, so we're up here assisting the local landowners and firefighting agencies," explains Raulerson. "We have a vested interest in this fire because there are hundreds of thousands of acres of timber just south of here in Florida that are the lifeblood of the area. We're here to do what we can to help suppress the fire whenever it comes out of the swamp."
But it's not just among the pine plantations of northern Florida that outbreaks occur. From the Panhandle to the Everglades, and points in-between, the Sunshine State endures a 10-year average of more than 3,000 wildfires a year. "Dried-up brush and small fuels are where fires usually start," explains Forestry Operations Consultant Ron Worrell. "Plus, we have a lot of vegetation with resinous leaves such as palmetto and gallberry that is highly combustible."
"Florida is in a very active fire season," adds Raulerson. "We had a late-killing frost and things are extremely dry, so we're placing equipment all over our district and throughout the state in anticipation of a very, very difficult season."
It's the job of Operations Management Consultant Earl Seagroves to oversee the purchasing and maintenance of the FFS fleet of more than 3,300 pieces of equipment. Its diverse firefighting arsenal includes wildland fire engines, transport trucks, heavy dozers, and medium crawler tractors equipped with fire plows. Considered its primary bread-and-butter firefighting machines, the 300-plus John Deere tractor plows are used for initial attack, as well as vital preventative-maintenance tasks such as clearing undergrowth.
Because the equipment is so specialized, the FFS purchases its crawler tractors through an invitation-to-bid contract. "The last several years, John Deere has been awarded the contract for medium dozers," says Seagroves. "You can't just purchase a fire tractor on a state-term contract. That's where John Deere comes through, setting these up special for us and providing the line-item options we need. We've spent years perfecting the design, and we're constantly looking for ways to make the machines even better for our operators."
As a former frontline firefighter, Raulerson fully appreciates the numerous machine changes that make a tough task more tolerable. Facing excessive ash, dirt, smoke, and heat, wildfire conditions are often oppressive. The air-conditioned, pressurized, and tightly sealed cabs help operators see and breathe easier and work longer with less stress. "It's just a better environment for our firefighters to work in compared to the open-cab tractors we had years ago," observes Raulerson. "They're now able to really concentrate on what they're doing and work effectively around those fires."
Being able to customize how the tractor responds at the push of a button is huge.
The drive systems in John Deere dozers enable an operator to "customize" the way the machine performs and responds, and the controls have become even more refined and operator-friendly since the H-Series' introduction in 1999. "Machines have really gotten sophisticated, and operators need to know how to use those features," observes Seagroves. "The K-Series has taught us more than we ever knew about the operation of the earlier models. When it came to selecting the braking, steering, and transmission settings, we always thought 'aggressive' was best. But not when you're pulling a plow in these conditions. The newer dozers helped us see how we could fine-tune the operation and find the 'sweet spot'. And it changed our theory of operation to understand how the dozer works."
JDLink™ was another game changer. The remote machine-monitoring system included on the FFS's 650K Dozers proved to be even more valuable than originally thought. "We don't know how we ever lived without it," says Seagroves. "It's not just for diagnostics and machine maintenance, although it's certainly good for that. It's also a big-time educational tool that's teaching us how to use the equipment."
For example, in the past, operators of open-ROPS dozers could feel the heat, smell the smoke, and sense the conditions around them. However, inside today's cabs, the effects of the fire on the dozer aren't as noticeable. "As they get closer to the fire, the tractor becomes saturated with the radiant heat, which over time affects the way it operates," says Seagroves. "We used to place stickers on the sides of the machines that would change colors when they got too hot. That wasn't the most reliable way to measure the effects of heat. JDLink lets us monitor machine conditions and performance, and use that information to help teach the operators what the limitations are, so they know what they can and can't do to help keep them safe."
By June 11, drenching rains have aided the effort, and the West Mims fire is extinguished after scorching 152,515 acres. Like other firefighters, the FFS team has returned home. But there's no rest for the weary. Tractor-plow crews stay busy assisting landowners in keeping their properties clear of combustibles. With Florida's wildfire season fully in front of them, the next call for help is only a thunderstorm or careless moment away. And it won't be long until they're dispatched again — putting their lives on the line to protect people and property as they tame the flames.
The Florida Forest Service's John Deere equipment is serviced by Beard Equipment and Dobbs Equipment, Florida.