Pinned in a scorching vortex

Pinned in a scorching vortex

Wildland firefighter Ed Vuolo is in his tractor cutting paths into the soil to keep a wildfire from spreading. The fire suddenly blows up, trapping Vuolo in a fiery tornado.

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

The above illustration, based on the firsthand account of Ed Vuolo, portrays the forestry ranger’s plight amidst scorching flames.

Inside the fire

Sarasota Herald-Tribune reporter Tom Bayles had covered large wildland fires before. Like other journalists arriving on a fire scene, he had witnessed these deadly infernos the usual way: safely cordoned away from the unfolding story.

In preparation for another season of wildfire coverage, Bayles and his editors decided on a new approach: Bayles attended a firefighting training school and qualified to serve as a volunteer firefighter with the Florida Division of Forestry. Afterward, he spent six months alongside forestry rangers helping fight some of the season’s worst wildfires. He documented his experiences from the frontline as 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.

Tom Bayles
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 6 March 2002

The winds whip around him at more than 60 miles per hour, at one point ripping a gallberrybush 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.

Wildfire Vignettes

Ed Vuolo demonstrates how he, at one moment in 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.

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