Trading Floods for Fire in Texas

A year later, the roadway has been replaced with a drainage culvert.

At top, on June 28, 2004, floodwaters swept a car away at East Butler and McClure streets in Fort Worth.

Cars wait half-submerged in a parking lot on West Berry Street near Texas Christian University on June 28, 2004.

A year later, weeds wither in the dry dirt, and the Eckerd is a CVS Pharmacy.

Fort Worth Station 7 firefighter and diver Lt. Alan Lake helps search a creek near Justin for evidence in a murder case in February. "We were busy all last summer," Lake said. "This year, it's been the complete opposite."

A bone-dry summer has local fire departments gearing up for a swarm of grass fires this year. Divers are not likely to be in high demand.

This time last year, Fort Worth's four-person Swift Water Rescue teams, or dive teams, were indispensable as the downpours seemed to never let up.

"I've been here only 10 years, but I can't remember an entire month, between drownings and rescues, that has been busier than this," Lt. Alan Lake, 34, of Station 7's dive team said last June.

It was particularly bad June 28, when a lunchtime thunderstorm pounded Tarrant County, flooding streets and sweeping away cars and sport utility vehicles.

"We were busy all last summer," Lake said. "This year, it's been the complete opposite. I don't think we've had one water rescue this year."

Now, instead of boarding inflatable rafts, firefighters will likely employ brush trucks against grass fires, which are common during dry weather -- and especially when fireworks are popping.

The brush trucks are smaller than standard fire engines and have four-wheel drive, so firefighters can go off-road to reach grass fires, said Lt. Kent Worley, a Fire Department spokesman.

Last summer, the trucks were rarely used, he said.

"We had very few grass fires of any magnitude simply because it was so damp and green for part of the summer," Worley said.

The same was true for Fourth of July weekend last year. Fort Worth firefighters responded to 1,700 fireworks violations that weekend, but few resulted in serious fires because of the damp conditions, Worley said.

This year, firefighters are bracing for a crush of fires over the weekend because the grass is so dry. Brush trucks will likely be very busy, Worley said.

"This year we're a little more concerned," he said.

Later this summer, if the lack of humidity reaches a "critical level" as expected, each fire house will be alloted an additional firefighter assigned to a brush truck, Worley said.

Meanwhile, the dive teams wait.

One of the teams is based at Station 7 in east Fort Worth, the other at Station 32 in the west. Each station is a neighborhood fire station, and the dive team members are regular firefighters who work every third day for 24 hours.

When working as a dive team rather than as firefighters, they employ a dive truck, which pulls a trailer filled with all the equipment they would need for a swift-water rescue. Tied to the top of the trailer is a Zodiac, an inflatable raft with an outboard motor.

"That's probably the best piece of equipment we have for swift-water rescue," dive team member Mark Smith said.

Despite the title, the teams tend to do more recovering than rescuing, members said. Most of their dives result in retrieving bodies from drownings, recovering cars and bringing up evidence in crimes from the bottom of lakes and rivers.

But during heavy storms, the teams often have a better chance of engaging in a rescue.

As strong as the brotherhood among firefighters is, there's a unique connection among those involved in swift-water rescue, said Craig MacDonald, a firefighter who sometimes works on such a team.

"It's extra camaraderie, us all being divers," MacDonald said. "It's not worth the extra money. It's about $100 a month. You have to love doing this."

IN THE KNOW

June 2004 was the second-wettest June on record, with 10.49 inches logged at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. Rainfall was recorded on 18 days that month.

So far this month, 1.14 inches of rain have fallen at D/FW Airport, 1.85 inches below normal.

Distributed by the Associated Press

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