At hurricane conference, attention turns to fires

May 14, 2008

Orlando Sentinel--May 14, 2008

Juan Ortega
South Florida Sun-sentinel


George Robins says disaster has weighed heavily on his mind lately.

As he sat in a class about emergencies at the Broward County Convention Center on Tuesday, he also was concerned about blazes threatening his home in Malabar, the southern Brevard County town at the heart of Central Florida’s wildfires.

“If the wind would have shifted, it would have been right in my yard,” said Robins, deputy chief of operations for the 45th Civil Engineer Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base.

Robins is among emergency managers preoccupied with Central Florida’s wildfires as they attend the Florida Governor’s Hurricane Conference in Fort Lauderdale. During the five-day conference, which ends Friday, emergency planners, rescue workers and government officials plan ways to help one another and residents in case of emergencies.

“It’s ironic,” said Ed Allen, 40, emergency-management coordinator for the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office. “It’s not the first time this has happened. There’s a lot of people who come to these kinds of events and get called back home.”

The wildfires have affected the conference in different ways.

A few visitors have left early to help fight fires in Brevard and Volusia counties.

Some conference instructors who similarly left were replaced by other presenters. Those still at the conference often check their cell phones and laptops for wildfire news.

Robins learned about the wildfires Sunday during his drive to Fort Lauderdale. His wife phoned to tell him. So far, only ashes from the fires have reached his home.

He said he was glad he removed debris and trees around his 3-acre property this year to minimize fire risk.

“I try to be prepared,” he said. “In this business, you might not be able to handle two situations at the same time, with issues at work and at home.”

One of Robins’ conference instructors, Kissimmee fire Chief Robert King, said the fires have become “a conversation piece” in some classes.

“What we talk about is concept and process,” King said. “A lot of this book concept has been put into reality.”

An emergency-response course that Deerfield Beach fire Chief Tony Stravino attended required a change in instructors, Stravino said, adding his initial instructor was a state Division of Forestry worker who was called upon to help in Central Florida.

Stravino said he could relate.

“We’re on call 24-7,” he said.