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Family finds strength to cope with fire loss

Even after fire scorched the only house she ever lived in, permeating her clothes with smoke and turning the new pink paint in her room black with soot, 10-year-old Damienne Flagler was grinning widely Monday afternoon.

On her first day of school after two tough weeks, she finally got to ride her gleaming new Huffy bike the five blocks to school. It was the highlight of a holiday season that began with the house fire that has made it difficult for Damienne, her mother, Sylvia Burt, and her 3-year-old brother Dealequez Persha to scrape together a joyful holiday.

"I just miss my room and my house," Damienne said. "It's scary in there. I don't want to go in; it makes me cry."

The fire gutted their home, 900 N Betty Lane, eight days before Christmas, causing $75,000 in property damage. Burt's godsister had been staying in the home with her own two young children, and Burt's 3-year-old nephew was visiting from West Palm Beach. Nobody was seriously injured in the blaze.

Investigators said Monday they were still trying to determine the cause of the fire, but Burt, 34, said she thinks it started when a towel near the fireplace caught a spark. When she tried to smother the flames, they raced up the lacquered walls, eventually scorching all but a few rooms and staining the entire house with soot.

The family moved next door to Burt's mother's house soon after the blaze and has lived there since. Burt sleeps on a love seat while her children share a couch. Their clothes are piled neatly in the entertainment center alongside a tangle of wires and small speakers.

"It's so cramped in there," Burt said. "We just want our lives to get back to normal."

On Christmas Eve, Burt said, she couldn't take it anymore. So she rented a gray Chrysler Pacifica, picked up Damienne and drove north for the sake of driving. They spent Christmas Eve at a rest stop in Jacksonville hunkered together in the car, talking and giggling as if they were at a slumber party, and drove back to Clearwater on Christmas Day.

"It was so much fun," said Damienne, speaking quickly and cracking a wide, dimpled grin. "My mom was like, "I want to ride so bad,' and so I was like, "Let's ride.' "

Several charities and neighbors donated toys, including the blue and gray bike that Damienne rode to school. Burt said one woman pulled up to her house in a Mercedes and handed over $180 without even leaving her name.

But despite the donations, things haven't been easy. In November, Burt was arrested and charged with cocaine possession and fleeing the police _ a case, she said, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Later that month, her sister died of breast cancer.

"The fire," Burt said, "was just icing on the cake."

Monday afternoon, when Damienne rode home from school smiling, was one of the first hopeful moments Burt said she has seen since the fire.

Damienne talked enthusiastically about the wind whipping through her hair and finding a shortcut to school and struggled to stop talking. Burt just smiled.

"This is the happiest I've seen her in a long time," she said.

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