Entire county told to flee

Published July 4, 1998|Updated Sept. 13, 2005

Flagler County turned into a ghost town Friday as all 45,000 residents were ordered to flee the wildfires rampaging across northeast Florida.

Forty homes and several businesses in Flagler fell victim to the raging inferno as it swept through the area south of St. Augustine.

With crackling fires consuming pine trees and brush to the north, south and west, residents of the towns of Flagler Beach, Palm Coast and Bunnell packed up pets, keepsakes and family heirlooms and hit the road, some of them for the second or third time.

Instead of a Fourth of July parade, Flagler residents held a bumper-to-bumper exodus to safety. State Road 100, lined with American flags in anticipation of holiday celebrations, was backed up for miles Friday afternoon with evacuees heading inland toward Palatka. Behind them, the sky glowed orange.

Earlier this week, some 40,000 people had been ordered out of their homes in two other East Coast counties, Brevard and Volusia. By 9 a.m. Friday, Flagler officials feared county residents might be cut off from all escape routes if they did not immediately evacuate, so they sounded the alarm too.

By late afternoon county officials estimated that at least half of Flagler's residents had fled, and probably more were caught in the traffic headed out of town.

Nearly 150 miles of Interstate 95 remained closed from Jacksonville to Cocoa Beach, with only a small stretch opened to evacuees fleeing Flagler County south.

Although a sea breeze swept in around dusk to give beleaguered firefighters a hand at squelching the flames, they nevertheless feared what the runaway blazes would do if the wind shifts again.

Like Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman scorching his way through Georgia, the wildfires that have cut a swath across the state now appear to be marching to the sea.

That possibility worried emergency officials because the coastline contains the state's heaviest population. While some residents confidently predicted the flames will stop at the Intracoastal Waterway, officials who have seen the fires jump four lanes of interstate highway said the boating canal would be no hurdle at all in some spots.

Asked what it would take to finally halt the conflagration, Brooksville firefighter Johnny Higginbotham, who was helping out in Flagler on Friday, said with a touch of sarcasm, "I"ve been told we can definitely stop it at the east coast."

Some people were counting on the Atlantic Ocean to save them. Ralph Jimenez, a 49-year-old car salesman, had evacuated his home in Ormond Beach earlier in the week and was staying with a buddy in Flagler Beach. When the call came to evacuate Flagler too, he ignored it.

"I know one thing for sure," he said. "That ocean ain't going to burn. If the fire comes up, I can walk across the beach into the water and I'll be okay. . . . My clothes can burn, my house can burn, my car can burn, but I can walk out into the water and be okay."

Not everybody was so confident. Ellen Hammacher was just stepping out of her shower Friday morning when she heard the television broadcast of the evacuation order. She was on the road by 11 a.m.

"When they said mandatory evacuation my heart was going to beat out of my chest," she said. "I don't think I ever got so ready so fast in my life."

Before the evacuation order, Flagler Palm Coast High School had been used as a shelter for evacuees from other areas. Among them were 7-year-old Drew Gormley and his family, who on Wednesday arrived in Palm Coast from Maryland for a two-week vacation at his grandmother's house.

But on Friday, Gormley's family was told they would have to leave the shelter too. As sirens wailed in the distance and police yelled at people to move on, the frightened boy clutched an inflatable Spider-Man doll he had snatched out of his grandmother's pool.

"I'm shaking like a rattlesnake," he exclaimed. His family decided to spend the rest of their trip at Busch Gardens in Tampa.

Palm Coast evacuees Alan and Debby Myers threw what they could into their van and drove 25 miles north to St. Augustine.

"It was absolutely horrible," Myers said. "The smoke was so thick you couldn't see 20 to 25 yards ahead of you. We couldn't wait to get out."

The Flagler County Jail was evacuated late Thursday, with deputies releasing 40 inmates being held for non-violent misdemeanorswho were ecstatic at being freed. The felons were bused to a jail in Lake County. The local hospital emptied out Friday, as elderly patients wearing oxygen masks lined up for a string of ambulances to pick them up.

The blazes burned over the Palm Coast well fields, damaging equipment and electrical wiring. With the county emptied out, officials said it was not a serious problem, but they were not sure what would happen when Flagler residents return.

County officials imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew for all but emergency personnel to prevent looting. Sheriff Robert McCarthy said if his deputies catch anyone violating the curfew, "we're going to take their little butts up" to jail in another county.

McCarthy conceded that the idea of evacuating an entire county was "kind of mind-boggling."

"You don't expect to show up for work and be told you're evacuating 45,000 people."

Flagler was particularly vulnerable because most of the state's resources had been focused on battling what seemed to be more serious blazes farther south in Volusia and Brevard counties.

This year's wildfires have been the worst in at least 50 years. They began on Memorial Day and have not let up since, particularly in the northeast. By Friday they had consumed about 325,000 acres, three times what is normally burned by summer wildfires. That translates to about 508 square miles that have been burned in the state _ an area about 60 percent larger than all of Pinellas County.

The Red Cross had 40 shelters open in the state Friday night, with 867 people checked in by 6 p.m. The agency said it was expecting about 3,000 to spend the night in shelters.

So far at least 150 homes have been damaged or destroyed and 55 people, many of them firefighters, have been injured. No deaths have been reported, although there have been some close calls.

Despite the evacuation orders, one Ormond Beach resident waited until flames surrounded his house, then called 911 for help. He was airlifted to safety.

"We had to pull crews off and go in with a helicopter," said Mike Pleus, Volusia County emergency management spokesman. "That really puts a strain on our resources."

Despite constant warnings about road closings, smoky conditions and traffic jams, persuading vacationers to change their travel plans has also been difficult, said Lt. Mike Guzman of the Florida Highway Patrol.

"It's hard for anybody to really understand the magnitude of the problem until they get out there," Guzman said. "They think it's not really that bad. . . . Let's face it, we've never had a problem like this. This is a first for us."

Friday was a day for a lot of firsts. Amtrak was forced to cancel its Sanford-based Autotrain for the first time, with hopes it could resume service today.

The fires have the attention of the highest levels of the federal government. James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said he was lying in bed in a Tallahassee hotel room at 3:30 a.m. when the phone rang. On the other end was President Clinton, calling from China to get an update on the fires.

The nationwide effort to aid Florida continued Friday. The National Guard activated 1,500 more troops and Air Force C-5 Galaxy cargo jets began airlifting at least 65 U.S. Forest Service fire engines to the Jacksonville Naval Air Station at a cost of $18-million.

Some 4,000 firefighters are already battling the blazes, from 41 states, Canada and departments around Florida. On Friday a crew of Pasco County firefighters saved 35 homes in Palm Coast, said District Fire Chief Gary Policastri.

"It's a war zone out there," he said.

About midnight the day before, a crew of St. Petersburg firefighters who have been working up to 14 hours a day trying to battle the blazes stopped at a gas station in Daytona on their way to the next firestorm.

"Looks like you've been through hell," the attendant said.

"Yeah," Capt. Paul Staab said, "and we're going back."

_ Times staff writers Thomas C. Tobin, Kris Mayes, Alicia Caldwell and Sue Landry contributed to this report, which also contains information from the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press.

Major fires update

More than 70,000 people have been evacuated from Flagler, Volusia and Brevard counties. Here are other numbers:+

FLAGLER COUNTY: At least 43 homes burned and 15 cars damaged; 4,298 acres burned.

VOLUSIA COUNTY: Ten people injured, including eight firefighters; 12 homes and 19 other structures destroyed; 150,000 acres burned.

BREVARD COUNTY: 24 firefighters injured; at least 30 homes and 5 other structures destroyed; 30,000 acres burned.

+ _ As of 9 p.m.

A home in a Palm Coast subdivision is engulfed in flames.

It was one of more than 40 that burned Friday in Flagler County.

Areas burned as of 6 p.m Friday and Closed roads

Tolls have been suspended on State Road 528 (Beeline Expressway) and on the Florida Turnpike from I-4 to I-75. Motorists who are traveling along I-95, near the affected closed areas, will be rerouted west.

Fanning the firestorm flames

A firestorm occurs when a brushfire becomes encircled by quickly rotating winds, such as the updraft in a tornado. The winds swirl faster and faster, pulling in surrounding air and further fueling the fire. These massive blazes create their own wind patterns, which are strong enough to uproot trees and scatter embers thousands of yards away. With fires on the north, south and west of Palm coast, firefighters are on the alert for just such and event.

Surrounding air is drawn into fire

Quickly rotating winds are generated

Flames and embers are scattered by the swirling winds