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 marks 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.
Here’s the story of how that forest fire burned:
Everyone remembers the wind
One thing everyone seems to remember about April 9, 2012, is the wind.
“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.
“There was another fire that started at the fire tower,” on the park’s western end, Brown said. “A neighbor called it in. It was extinguished pretty quickly.”
The Birdsboro-Union Fire Department responded. Erb said a branch fell on an electrical wire which caused an arc that set off an area about 40 to 50 feet wide.
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.”
“I went over to eat (lunch) and heard on the radio that this other fire was much bigger,” Brown said.
As he called 911, Erb recognized the magnitude of the blaze.
“It was readily apparent that gaining access to this fire was going to be difficult,” he said.
When Brown arrived at the scene, he immediately thought one thing.
“This is getting out of control really fast,” he said.
Fire was moving quickly -- and getting larger
Joe Frassetta first heard about the fire over a radio at his office.
The William Penn District manager in the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry, 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.”
“The fire will spread very rapidly due to the wind and dry vegetation and low humidity,” Erb said.
“It was just racing toward the east,” Brown said. “It was really scary.”
What made it so scary was the fact that just on the park’s eastern edge was St. Peters Road, lined with houses.
Homes were in harm’s way
“We could smell it, first of all,” said Renee O’Brien. “Then our neighbors across the street on the border of French Creek parkland, I’m not sure if they got a phone call or someone came around to tell them, but they let us know.”
It wasn’t long until “little bits of ashes” were visible in the air.
O’Brien’s neighbors bordering French Creek eventually came over to take shelter at her home, then authorities with a bullhorn and firefighters started going door to door to let everyone know they should evacuate.
“They were telling us that the fire was a couple miles away and that the wind was kind of blowing in our direction,” she said. “They said after x-amount of time expired, they wouldn’t be able to come and rescue us.”
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.
“It’s awful,” she said of evacuating. “The first thought is where to go. Then it’s what you need.”
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. We watched the news very intently. There was a brief mention of it (on TV). Otherwise, it was the internet. The Mercury was doing updates frequently.”
“We were communicating with a neighbor and another neighbor via email and letting them know if they’re not home to not go back to the house,” O’Brien said.
Remote area hampered communication
Erb was among the crews who trekked into the woods to fight the fire.
“It was actually very smoky, the fire was not the kind of fire that you have out west where it goes from treetop to treetop,” he said.
Most of the time, the fire was low, staying beneath three feet tall unless it hit a taller dead tree, according to Erb.
“It did create a lot of smoke when you’re comparing the amount of smoke to the amount of flames,” Erb said. “This fire would just move along as the wind was blowing it. It would go along a northern direction, then it would go east, then it would go north.”
“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.
And because of the strong winds that day, getting a helicopter in the air was dangerous.
“There was concern with the winds being really strong at the time,” said Union Township Manager Carol Lewis. “You really couldn’t tell which way it was going to go.”
On top of that, communication was an issue for crews in the woods communicating with each other and the base of operations on Hopewell Road near Shed Road.
“An issue was communications with us, communications with each other, keeping their groups together because our radios were not working well in that area and neither were cell phones,” Frassetta said. “When you send people out there and communications aren’t working, it’s a scary thing.”
“It was a remote area. Cell phone reception was spotty,” Erb said. “You could be talking to someone, take a few steps, then lose contact with them.”
With dozens of fire companies on scene, many different radio frequencies were being used.
“There were times when you could see somebody but not talk to them,” Erb said.
Nelson Ott, who helped coordinate efforts with Frassetta at the Hopewell command center, is the vice chairman of Union Township’s board of supervisors.
“You couldn’t even make a phone call. I had to update our emergency management coordinator but I couldn’t call,” Ott said. “I had a state trooper drive me over to the township building anytime I needed to make an update.”
As a result, Frassetta said there was some difficulty in making sure everyone fighting the fire was getting fed.
Much of the communication and equipment and food distribution was done face to face, aided by all-terrain vehicles, according to Frassetta.
Compounding issues with the unpredictable nature of the fire was the possibility that the fire could strike International Fireworks Co., a fireworks factory in Union Township.
“We found out there was a fireworks factory in the line of the fire,” Frassetta said. “That was the first time I left the scene to talk to these folks because I knew that couldn’t be good.”
Residents in Union Township around the edge of the park and in the vicinity of the fireworks plant were encouraged to evacuate.
“I take my hat off,” Ott said. “You had guys running around and knocking on doors and sometimes people don’t really want to leave their home.”
Birds-eye view brought knowledge and fear
North Coventry Police Chief Robert Schurr said his department was in a support role during the fire.
“There were some conversations about trying to get a Pennsylvania State Police helicopter to survey the area,” Schurr said.
He said he thought the issue was the wind gusts being too great to safely fly.
Finally, the state police’s aviation wing out of Reading Regional Airport could get into the air. With a downlink, the chopper was able to send images of the fire down to the command center on the ground.
“During the day it was hard to see in the smoke,” said Corporal Anthony Wagner, the pilot who flew above the fire. “The wind didn’t help at all.”
With a thermal imaging camera, though, “we could see where it was hotter even though we couldn’t see the flames,” Wagner said.
The chopper flew once in the late afternoon and once at night. At night, Wagner said the pictures provided allowed the personnel to “change and tweak the plan” to fight the fire.
Frassetta said the arrival of the state police helicopter was big.
“We did see the scale and scope of it,” Frassetta said. “The topography was challenging.”
“That night gave the best thermal imaging and you could really see the houses lit up with their lights and the firefighters with their flashlights on the fire line,” Wagner said. “That’s what sticks out to me, (how close the fire was).”
Eventually, with the fire uncontained, many St. Peters Road residents evacuated and with darkness fallen, Frassetta gave a press conference at Union Township’s municipal building on the situation.
“We were literally fighting the fire in the dark,” he said. “I think the biggest thought going through my mind was the safety of the people.”
“I think maybe the memory I have is thinking some time during that first night that it was imminent that we would lose some homes,” Brown said. “That was the most terrifying moment of the whole thing.”
Crews begin to gain control of fire
During the first night into early Tuesday morning, firefighters continued working, creating 200 foot wide fire lines with bulldozers and removing dead tree and plant material that could have fueled the flames.
At some point, the fire began to be contained, but it was by no means easy going.
“The second day, I remember it was daylight and you couldn’t really tell where the fire was because of the smoke,” Wagner said, flying again. “We had to stay outside of the smoke perimeter.”
He was joined in the sky by another helicopter dumping water on the flames and a fixed-wing aircraft out of Reading which also helped douse the fire.
Most of those who evacuated for fear of the fire reaching the fireworks factory had returned to their Union Township homes.
“The fire didn’t really threaten the facility at all,” Erb said.
Many St. Peters Road residents returned as well, including O’Brien.
When they returned, they showed their appreciation to those who protected their homes.
“Some people put signs in their yards saying thank you to the firefighters,” O’Brien said.
“They showed appreciation by treating those firefighters like they were family, coming out with meals and homecooked baked stuff,” Frassetta said. “I think that showed a real family camaraderie that you normally don’t see in a fire.”
All Tuesday, firefighters continued improving the fire lines and patrolling.
In the meantime, French Creek State Park remained open in the areas unaffected by the fire.
“We tried to keep our employees involved with the patrons as normal as possible,” Brown said.
Fishermen could be seen at Hopewell Lake, periodically disturbed by the lowering of the firefighting helicopter’s bucket into the water.
By about 6 p.m., most of the fire was declared contained.
However, Frassetta said he didn’t begin to relax a little until the third day, when it looked like the fire was under control.
After that, crews were drawn down greatly. Patrols continued and the wait was on for wetter weather. It wasn’t until April 22 when the fire was officially announced as extinguished.
Firefighters were ‘true heroes’
“The firefighters were the true heroes of that day and I don’t think they got enough recognition,” Ott said.
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.
“The people working long hours were our volunteers,” Schurr said. “They were the people that really deserve the credit.”
“I recall, that Tuesday morning, I was having breakfast at McDonalds and you looked to the hill and all you could see was smoke coming off it,” Erb said. “It was a weird experience. You’re on for your shift, then you’re off it, go to work, then you’re back on.”
“It was really surreal in a way,” Schurr said. “Watching the glow, I can recall walking back into the woodline and seeing how close the fire came to the homes. It’s not something we expect in our geographic location. But, obviously, we have the big pristine wooded area.”
As the anniversary of the fire approaches, the Birdsboro-Union Fire Department was called out Sunday to a small brush fire not far from the park.
“As I recall, (last year), the temperature was about the same, the dryness was the same,” Erb said. “Right now, the conditions are very similar.”
“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.”
Although the fire burned 741 acres, Brown and Frassetta said the fire might provide a rebirth of sorts for that part of French Creek park.
“You’re going to see some plants you hadn’t seen before,” Frassetta said. “You’ll see some wildflowers that might have been overshadowed.”
“It’s going to be interesting here in late spring to see what happens,” Brown said.
Read the accounts from The Mercury at the time here.
The Mercury’s editor, Nancy March, was one of the Union Township residents evacuated. Read her experience.
Frank Otto covered the fire the first three days. Here’s his blog on the experience.