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All 35,000 Residents in Florida County Flee Fires

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The number of residents forced to flee Florida’s raging wildfires more than doubled overnight, when all 35,000 residents of one county were ordered Friday to grab what they could and leave their homes.

The mandatory evacuation order for Flagler County created massive traffic tie-ups on the few highways that remained passable. The southbound lanes of Interstate 95, 125 miles of which remained closed for the second day to normal traffic, were reopened to funnel refugees from the fire to Red Cross emergency shelters in the Orlando area.

“This is dead serious. Don’t joke around. Get out!” Sheriff Robert McCarthy told residents of Flagler County, a sparsely populated area of pine woods and brushy ranch land on the state’s east coast between Jacksonville and Daytona Beach.

James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said $60 million in resources have been committed to helping Florida combat the series of scattered but intensely hot wildfires that began Memorial Day and have scorched 450,000 acres.

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“This is an unprecedented fire situation in Florida,” said Democratic Sen. Bob Graham at a news conference in Tallahassee.

There will be no fireworks in most of Florida today, having been banned in a state where a lack of normal rainfall has turned the woodlands to tinder. On Thursday, a U.S. District Court judge rejected a bid by fireworks sellers to have the ban overturned.

“We won’t have sparklers, but we will celebrate the patriots--the firefighters--for the Fourth of July,” Gov. Lawton Chiles said.

Dozens of weekend events have been canceled because of the fires, including the first nighttime running of the Pepsi 400 NASCAR race at the Daytona International Speedway. But that did open up hotel rooms to refugees from Flagler County.

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Although some late afternoon showers gave firefighters a break Friday, the long-range outlook is for explosive conditions to continue.

“We don’t have a handle on anything,” Ormond Beach Fire Chief Barry Baker said early Friday. “We’re not going to have a handle on anything until we get some kind of tropical [rains].”

In the Caribbean, forecasters were watching an area of low pressure that could spawn a tropical depression or even a hurricane. But it was thousands of miles and several days away. And with a stubborn high-pressure system parked over the state, forecasters say, the outlook is for fire, not rain.

This small town, as well as 43,000 residents of nearby Titusville, were cautioned to be ready to flee if fires to the west pushed closer. About 50 homes in this area have been destroyed, while more than 100 others have gone up in smoke in Volusia and Flagler counties to the north.

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“The experts tell me they have never seen anything like this, as difficult and complex as this, " Titusville Fire Chief Thomas Harmer said. “This is so dry, so explosive, and it moves fast. And then these fires come in, there are not enough people and not enough water to put in front of them.”

Indeed, firefighters from more than 40 states and several federal agencies are battling only to protect life and property, not put out the fires. Chiles called on municipal officials around Florida to send more firefighting equipment, including bulldozers, to help with the effort.

This holiday weekend promised little joy or relaxation for the more than 4,000 firefighters or the estimated 70,000 Floridians forced to flee their homes through choking smoke. Officials said 40 emergency shelters had been opened, most in schools. More than 2,000 National Guard troops have been called.

Some evacuees may have to wait for days until they discover if their homes have been destroyed by the approaching fires.

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“This is very scary, very upsettng,” said Pamela Marteney, 40, who went to a shelter in Orlando after fire surrounded her home in the town of Christmas. “With the wind shifting, I have no idea if the house is standing. And my 11-year-old keeps asking, ‘Are we going to be all right, Mom?’

“He’s very frightened.”

The situation in Flagler County grew critical when three separate brush fires to the west of Bunnell--covering about 43,000 acres--edged closer to a wall-of-flame merger.

On televisions in shelters in several counties, many of those ordered from their homes watched in dismay as Florida Emergency Management Director Craig Fugate offered a chilling prediction.

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“This is a phenomenon like a hurricane,” Fugate said of the wildfires. “You are not going to stop it. This fire will continue to burn . . . and it will join together and burn this area out.

“If given the break, we can save the houses. If Mother Nature doesn’t give us the break, at least we will save lives.”

No deaths have been reported as a result of the fires .

But the property losses are mounting. In the last few days, at least 120 homes in central and north Florida have been destroyed. Fifty-five people have been injured.

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As shelters in three counties began filling up, tempers sometimes flared. “The heat is suffocating, breathing is difficult, and we’re trying to tell them it is better to come into the shelter and chill out than to stand out there in the neighborhoods worrying,” said Kathy Russell, manager of the Red Cross shelter at Astronaut High School in Titusville. “The scope of this whole conflagration is hard to understand. And the uncertainty about whether or not their homes still exist is frustrating.

“It’s just anguishing when your home may be going up in smoke.”

State officials say the cost of fighting the wildfires has reached $106 million.

So far, the western part of the state and the Orlando-area tourist attractions, including Disney World, have been largely unaffected. But northwest winds have pushed smoke from the fires as far south as Miami, 200 miles from here.

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The end of the fires is not in sight.

“Pray for rain,” Chiles urged Floridians.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Fighting Fires in Florida

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Protecting life and property is the main concern of the firefighters as they battle the spreading inferno in Florida. The attack strategy is twofold: suppress the fire by dousing the hot spots and remove the fuel that surrounds them. A look at five of their methods:

THE PROBLEMS

* Drought has left Florida’s vegetation, which is highly flammable, dangerously dry

* Recent storms that were expected to bring some relief instead spurred lightning bolts that set new blazes

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* Winds are spreading flames

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(1) Air tankers: Some can drop up to 1,500 pounds of retardant

(2) Engines: Assist aircraft in wetting down homes and putting out fires

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(3) Bulldozers: Clear vegetation that fuels the fires

(4) Fusee: A flair-like device used by firefighters to burn back vegetation

(5) Helicopters: Douse houses and fires with up to 800 gallons of water

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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Record Highs

High temperature records set since May 1.

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# of record highs Highest temp. record Gainesville 10 101 Jacksonville 6 103 Melbourne 23 101 Orlando 14 100 Tallahassee 13 102 Tampa Bay 7 98 Vero Beach 7 99

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Source: Florida Division of Forestry, Accu-Weather


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