Florida's fiery agony deepens

Published July 3, 1998|Updated Sept. 13, 2005

In Florida's monthlong trial by fire, Thursday was the worst day yet. Dozens of homes and businesses burned to the ground. Some 35,000 people grabbed what they could and fled, not sure when or if they could return. Road closures paralyzed a big part of the state.

It was so bad the governor urged everyone to pray.

The fires forced a sold-out NASCAR race at Daytona Beach's historic speedway to be rescheduled. In Flagler County, the sheriff evacuated inmates from the jail. Even space center officials at Cape Canaveral grew concerned about the approaching flames.

Footlong pieces of ash fell from the sky and billboards were melted from their frames. Thick smoke turned the merciless sun blood-red.

In a speech beamed by satellite to Florida television stations, Gov. Lawton Chiles asked Floridians to appeal to a higher power.

"'I hope you will join me in praying for rain," he said. "We have to hold on until the rain comes."

Chiles urged residents to be ready to flee at a moment's notice: "Decide now what you need to take with you. If your community is asked to evacuate, please do that very quickly."

Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford announced that, after consulting with weather experts, his staff has concluded there is little chance the wildfires will subside soon.

"'The worst news of all is that this is not a short-term situation we're facing," he said, grim-faced. "We're having to look at our long-term strategy of surviving this for quite a while."

An estimated 1,900 wildfires have damaged or destroyed at least 96 homes and 57 other structures statewide since the fires began Memorial Day. They have lasted longer and threatened a wider area than the fires of 1985, which destroyed 200 homes.

Although wildfire is part of the natural cycle in Florida's forests, in an average year only 112,000 acres burn. This year's wildfires already have burned about 283,000 acres.

On Thursday, a wall of flames threatened double-wide trailers and plush million-dollar homes along a broad corridor stretching 45 miles from Titusville to Ormond Beach, just north of Daytona Beach.

About 30,000 people were told to leave their homes in Volusia County, mostly from Ormond Beach and the northwest section of Daytona Beach.

"I moved here two years ago to get away from the freezing cold weather and the ice storms," said Bill Faust, a New Jersey transplant turned Daytona evacuee. "I feel like going back to Jersey."

In Volusia, the fires made a 10-mile run for the ocean before they were stopped by the Tomoka River. In addition to scorching acres of forest and downing miles of power lines, the fires destroyed or damaged about 10 houses and leveled four businesses along U.S. 1.

In Daytona Beach, thousands of racing fans were forced to return home after NASCAR postponed the Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway until Oct. 17. The event had sold out the 143,000-seat grandstands.

About 300 guests at a Holiday Inn across from the speedway were forced to leave as flames headed up from the south. Workers went from room to room telling guests to leave.

In some areas, residents grabbed their valuables and ran. In others, they grabbed tools to stand and fight. In Scottsmoor, nine residents armed with shovels and green garden hoses went door to door to beat back flames that came within 250 feet of their homes.

Volusia utilities reported at least 4,000 customers without power because of lines downed by the fires. Other homes were dark because firefighters had requested the power be turned off so electricity would not spark more blazes.

Florida Power & Light had to close offices endangered by the wildfires. A regional FP&L switching station was in harm's way, as was a substation supplying power to most of Daytona Beach.

Flames even threatened the Daytona well fields, raising concerns about contaminated drinking water and damaged pumping equipment. Firefighters faced more immediate water worries: A number of ponds where helicopters had been drawing water to drop on the wildfires have begun to run dry.

"They're starting to pull out mud," said Barry Baker, the Ormond Beach fire chief.

At least 10,000 Flagler County residents were told to flee. Residents evacuated from the Rima Ridge area of southern Flagler waited in the smoke at the end of the road into their neighborhood as fire crews tried to save their homes.

Tom Belmonte, 42, said he built his block home after Hurricane Andrew. "We built for wind and storm, but nobody could build for fire," he said. "Fire will walk right through anything."

His wife Karen, 38, saved the family's horse and pictures. "It's just devastating," she said. "You cry so much you just can't cry anymore."

Firefighters battling the blazes in Flagler County on Wednesday night expected the four lanes of Interstate 95 to function as an asphalt firebreak. But the fire easily leaped the major north-south artery and spread with dismaying speed.

"It jumped the highway like it was nothing," said Hillsborough County fire Capt. Raymond Yeakley, an eyewitness. "It covered a mile in 15 minutes."

Firefighters trying to protect homes near the interstate found themselves in peril. "They just had enough time to back up and get out," Yeakley said. "It was really something."

Late Thursday, I-95 remained closed from its intersection with I-295 at Jacksonville southward to where it meets State Road 528 south of Titusville. U.S. 1, another primary north-south road that generally follows the I-95 path, was closed throughout much of Volusia and Brevard counties.

In Brevard County, the fires jumped State Road 46 in three places, threatening two mobile home parks and more than 300 suburban homes as they moved southeast toward I-95. At least five firefighters were injured in Brevard. Three suffered second-degree burns.

An estimated 5,000 people in Brevard County were ordered to leave their homes, many for the third time in two days. Late Thursday authorities were deciding whether to order all 40,000 residents of the county seat of Titusville to get out.

At Astronaut High School in Titusville, shelter director Kathy Russell said dealing with the fires has been more difficult than running a hurricane shelter.

"It's the uncertainty," she said while tending to more than 100 evacuees. "We may be open for another day, we may be open for another week. We don't even know whose house is gone."

At one point wildfires raged about 10 miles away from the Kennedy Space Center, where visibility was reduced to 1{ miles because of thick smoke and falling ash. NASA engineers grew concerned about how the rain of ash might affect the "clean rooms" where modules of the new international space station are are waiting to be launched into orbit.

The governor's concerns are more basic. He has been begging the federal government for more equipment, including heavy bulldozers, to clear firelines around residential areas. Federal Emergency Management Agency chief James Lee Witt was scheduled to tour hard-hit areas with Chiles today.

In his televised speech, the governor praised the determined firefighters: "Every one of them I talked to, I said, "You need some rest?' and they would say, "Man, we're here till this is over.' "

But at this point no one knows when that will be. "Until Mother Nature relents," said Crawford, the agriculture commissioner, "we don't have a chance."

_ Times staff writers Chase Squires, David Ballingrud and Curtis Krueger contributed to this report, which also contains information from Times wires.

Areas affected by wildfires

At least 1,868 wildfires have burned about 283,000 acres in Florida since May 25. Total cost of fighting the fires is more than $78.42-million. Here is a county-by county list with approximate acres burned, if reported, in parentheses.

_ Alachua (7,205)

_ Baker (105)

_ Bay (84)

_ Bradford (2,100) Two homes damaged.

_ Brevard (20,000) Five injured. Thirty to 50 structures destroyed, including homes, mobile homes, businesses and unoccupied buildings. Another 10 to 20 damaged by heat and smoke.

_ Broward (no report)

_ Calhoun (no report)

_ Charlotte (405)

_ Citrus (no report)

_ Clay (4,582) Two injured, two homes damaged.

_ Collier (300)

_ Columbia (19,500) Four injured.

_ Dade (no report)

_ DeSoto (no report)

_ Dixie (234)

_ Duval (5,975) One home damaged.

_ Escambia (no report)

_ Flagler (4,298) Two injuries, 37 homes and 15 vehicles damaged.

_ Franklin (60)

_ Gadsden (no report)

_ Gilchrist (40)

_ Glades (25)

_ Gulf (1,000)

_ Hamilton (110) Five homes and two vehicles damaged.

_ Hardee (no report)

_ Hendry (no report)

_ Hernando (37) One home damaged.

_ Highlands (3,000)

_ Hillsborough (50)

_ Holmes (no report)

_ Indian River (200)

_ Jackson (no report)

_ Jefferson (no report)

_ Lafayette (75)

_ Lake (1,025) Four homes damaged.

_ Lee (376)

_ Leon (no report)

_ Levy (75)

_ Liberty (5)

_ Madison (38)

_ Manatee (no report)

_ Marion (3,000)

_ Martin (1,550)

_ Monroe (no report)

_ Nassau (2,727) Six homes and 12 buildings damaged.

_ Okaloosa (3,575) Three injured.

_ Okeechobee (no report)

_ Orange Two fires, no acreage reported.n

_ Osceola (4,770) Two homes, one vehicle damaged.

_ Palm Beach (1,000) Three vehicles damaged.

_ Pasco (3,233)

_ Pinellas (3)

_ Polk (1,350)

_ Putnam (6,800) Four people injured, one vehicle damaged.

_ St. Johns (3,000) One injured, eight homes damaged.

_ St. Lucie (no report)

_ Santa Rosa (800) Eglin Air Force Base land.

_ Sarasota (5)

_ Seminole (2,010) Two injured, 15 homes and more than 50 vehicles damaged.

_ Sumter (153)

_ Suwannee (no report)

_ Taylor (30,213)

_ Union (13,903)

_ Volusia (80,000) Nine people injured. At least 10 homes and 20 business destroyed

_ Wakulla (24,621) Two people injured. Wildfire in the Apalachicola National Forest.

_ Walton (100) One person injured.

_ Washington (no report)

Sources: Florida Emergency Management Division, local officials.

The division provides information on road closings at 1-800-342-3557 and on its website at comaff/DEM