Nature shows it's still the boss as Florida residents flee fires As population grows, each drought puts public in more danger

June 26, 1998|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ORMOND BEACH, Fla. -- They called in firefighters from across the country. Airplanes have dropped thousands of gallons of water from overhead. Some have prayed, others have fled.

And still, it was the elements that prevailed: Fire and rain turned ,, out to be more powerful than man and ministrations.

The monthlong outbreak of wildfires that have plagued Florida and are burning most intensely in Volusia County on the state's eastern coast continued unabated yesterday despite an afternoon storm that produced too little rain to extinguish all the flames but enough wind to spread them.

Earlier in the day, officials ordered a subdivision on the northern edge of the county evacuated as fires approached the 147 homes there. Surrounded by some of the largest fires that have burned about 55,000 acres of the county, residents packed what they could in their cars and left their homes behind. Several neighbors, though, refused to go, and last night those who left were told they could return.

A red-eyed Fred Griffin stood on the porch of the ranch house he and his son built with their own hands five years ago. "It was looking pretty bad out, and I was getting scared," he said. "I just started praying, and it wasn't five minutes before it started raining. I started to cry when I saw it."

Although most of his neighbors joined the evacuation, they understood the reluctance that kept Griffin on his porch.

"It's hard to walk away from your house," Bob Bendlin said as he led his three dogs into his car and waved goodbye to his wife, Eileen, and 10-year-old son, Bobby, who drove off in another vehicle.

"My best belongings just left in that car. This," he said, pointing to his Tudor-style house, "can be replaced."

Dry woods quick to burn

Bendlin retired after 25 years as a firefighter in New Jersey and moved to Florida for the quiet, lushly green area where many neighbors keep horses and the surrounding woods are largely undeveloped.

But those very woods present the area's biggest danger: A record drought has left the piney forests extremely dry and combustible. Wildfires continue to flare and spread, filling the air with thick smoke that has sent those with respiratory problems to hospitals and forced the closure of roads as visibility plummets in the worst areas.

Firefighters can't even reach some of the worst fires because the woods are so dense they are impassable by truck. Infrared devices have been used to scan from overhead for hot spots that might be doused by tanker airplanes. Most of the firefighting efforts have been directed at protecting the residential areas -- bulldozers were brought in to cut 50-foot-wide swaths around developments such as Plantation Pines, for example, to break the fire's path.

But the only real solution is sustained rain -- and lots of it, officials say. While forecasts call for more rain this week, Florida's weather is notoriously hard to predict.

"Most disasters, there's a beginning and end. This one just keeps going on," said George Thune, a spokesman with the Federal Emergency Management Agency who has been monitoring the Volusia County fires.

President Clinton has declared the entire state a disaster area. Since they began on Memorial Day, the fires have burned more than 155,000 acres. Every county but Monroe, which covers the Florida Keys, has been struck, although the northern part of the state, from the Panhandle in the west to the Atlantic Coast on the east, has suffered the most severe effects. Farms have lost more than $100 million in crops like corn, hay, soybeans and cotton because of the drought.

Planes, tankers, bulldozers

Volusia County has come to resemble a state under siege: Overhead, planes fly low, shuttling between tankers of water and the fires they seek to douse. Huge yellow bulldozers rumble by, leveling underbrush before it can ignite.

Humvees and fire trucks hurtle back and forth, carrying firefighters and others to one fire, then another, and then another. Hundreds of firefighters from elsewhere, as well as forestry and National Guard personnel, have traveled to help, bringing much-needed engines, airplanes and equipment. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources sent about 16 firefighters, supervisors and mechanics -- as well as five pieces of equipment -- to the area Wednesday.

And still it's not enough. Fires continue to flare, some right next to highways or even on their medians. Smoke will turn from light to dense with a sudden shift in the wind.

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