For the past two weeks, retired firefighter Craig Lodge has been living out of a tent in New Orleans' French Quarter, working 16-hour days and waiting for the sound he has become accustomed to hearing: sirens signaling another fire.
Lodge and Oak Creek firefighter Tony Morgan are in the middle of a 30-day mission to help put out daily fires riddling the already devastated communities along the Gulf Coast. Lodge is among firefighters from across the country battling fires that are the result of felled electrical lines and gas-pocket buildups.
"We've seen anywhere from one to two fires a day here," he said. "Those numbers are going to increase, though."
Lodge said several gas lines were damaged during Hurricane Katrina, and many power lines are still down.
During his two weeks working with the relief effort, Lodge has seen warehouses, homes and apartment complexes catch fire.
"The problem is that all the houses are very dried out and old," he said. Because of this, firefighters have to work especially hard to make sure fires don't skip from house to house, like one did Monday.
"We ended up putting out two houses right next door to each other," he said.
Lodge said the high humidity has slowed the spread of the fires, because everything is so moist.
One problem Lodge has come across is the low levels of water pressure coming from the city's fire hydrants, which keeps firefighters from having access to the water they need.
Although the pumping stations are slowly being repaired, Lodge said their needs might demand more than the hydrants can supply.
"We do need quite a bit of water," he said.
At this point in the rebuilding process, Lodge said he thinks the city is slowly beginning to fill in even though most people still do not have electricity.
When Lodge first got into the area, he said, it was like a ghost town.
"It was so spooky. There wasn't a soul here," he said. "We would walk up and down the streets and not see a single person."
Now Lodge is beginning to see business owners come back to their shops and more cars on the road.
Even though people are coming back, Lodge said, there are still areas of the city that are unlivable -- especially areas where water levels reached about 14 feet.
Lodge said bacteria levels in the standing water are 20 times greater than they should be. Because the bacteria in the water is so great, the firefighters have been advised not to fight fires in those areas.
When the trucks and the firefighters pass through contaminated areas of the city, the trucks are decontaminated with a chemical spray to keep them from infecting other areas of the city.
"Where the water levels have come down, the smell is horrific," he said. "The heat is just causing it to get worse."
In a phone interview Tuesday, Lodge said temperatures were about 95 degrees but that the humidity made it feel about 105 degrees.
"We have to find shade wherever we can," he said.
The U.S. Fire Administration estimates that more than 4,000 firefighters from around the country have responded to the need in Louisiana, meeting Fed--eral Eme--rgency Management Agency and USFA goals.
Lodge is working with a crew of about 14 men. Firefighters in his area are from New Orleans, New York, Illinois, Idaho and Minnesota. There are Colorado firefighters there from Eagle, Aspen and Basalt, he said.
Lodge is worried that Hurricane Rita will cause more problems in the area he is in, as the storm is expected to pass through the Gulf of Mexico and hit the Texas or Louisiana coast by Friday or Saturday, according to reports from the National Weather Service.
Hurricane Rita is now south of the Florida Keys.
Lodge said New Orleans officials are ordering residents and businesses in the Algiers area of the city and the East Bank to evacuate. Rescue workers are developing plans for evacuation, he said, and will implement them in the days to come if necessary.
Lodge said he is concerned the levees will not hold if another strong storm hits the area.
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