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INSIDE THE FIRE

Jacob Benison, Reportorial Illustration, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 02 March 2002.

The above illustration is based on the firsthand account of Florida Division of Forestry ranger Ed Vuolo who survived a vortex of fire that engulfed his tractor while he was plowing firebreaks.

The winds whip around him at more than 60 miles per hour, at one point ripping a gallberry bush out by the roots. It explodes into flames in midair, feet from Vuolo's face.

His first impulse is to jump off the John Deere and run, but common sense tells him that sprinting through a circulating wall of fire might not be his best option. His lungs are being scorched. He moves to one side of his open-air cab, so the metal rig blocks as much of the heat as possible.

He looks up and sees embers, like whirling stars, spewing up and out of the vortex. Sandy soil blasts his face.

"I'm dying," he thinks as the heat comes through his Nomex fire suit. Then: "OK. I'm dead."

He tries for one more breath, but finds no oxygen. The fire has used it all. He jams his eyes shut and guns his tractor blindly forward. He doesn't know how thick the fire is, or if he will run into a trench or a tree or another ranger on the other side. But staying still means dying.

Vuolo sets his tractor into it's fastest gear and chugs through the fire, holding his breath, expecting to die.

He bursts out of the spinning flames into a part of the field that has already burned. His goggles are sideways on his soot-coated face. His eyes seem twice their normal size.

Tom Bayles, Sarasota Herald-Tribune

6 March 2002

Ed Vuolo demonstrates how he at one moment of his ordeal attempted to shield his face from the intense heat of the fire that encircled him and his tractor. This reference photo is one of several taken during my interview with the ranger.

Jacob Benison, Reportorial Illustration,
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 04 March 2002.

About this assignment

Sarasota Herald-Tribune reporter Tom Bayles had covered large wildland fires before. He had seen these deadly infernos the way journalists who arrive on scene always do: safely cordoned away from the unfolding story.

In preparation for another season of wildfire coverage, Bayles and his editors decided on a new approach. He attended firefighting training school and qualified to serve as a volunteer firefighter with the Florida Division of Forestry. For six months he helped fight some of the largest fires of the year while observing and recording events around him. He learned firsthand what it is like to be inside the fire.

Managing editors assigned me to produce illustrations that would accurately portray some of what he and fellow firefighters experienced.

Jacob Benison, Reportorial Illustration, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 03 March 2002.

It's a brutal, 8-story climb to the top of the silvery towers where Florida Division of Forestry Rangers watch for wildfires. Manning the towers used to be an April job, but a three-year drought that turned Southwest Florida woods kindling-dry means rangers have been making the cruel climb since January...

... To these guys a big wildfire means excitement. They don't actually want a blaze to break out, but if it does, they want it to be on their watch, in their zone. They bring a sense of expectation, not anticipation. The difference is subtle, but key.

Tom Bayles, Sarasota Herald-Tribune

3 March 2002

Jacob Benison, Reportorial Illustration, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 05 March 2002.

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