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Wildfires Force a Fourth of July Retreat

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The scene was set for a rousing Fourth of July celebration here Saturday. The Stars and Stripes were flying every 50 feet along State Street. The route of the traditional parade had been marked off. And the weather was perfect--sunny and dry.

But there was nobody home.

An eerie feel of a land deserted hung over Flagler County like the wood smoke as a mandatory evacuation order remained in effect for a second day because of stubborn wildfires that have been running unchecked in parts of north and central Florida for more than five weeks.

Although winds were light, and firefighters drew hope from a decrease in new outbreaks, fire still threatened in three Florida counties. More than 125,000 people, including the majority of Flagler County’s 35,000 residents, have been forced from their homes by the blazes, which have raged over 450,000 acres.

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There was also hope in the form of a low-pressure system in the Gulf of Mexico that could bring rain to the area by the middle of the week. That contributed to the optimism expressed by some officials here.

“We’re turning the tide today, and if the weather persists we’ll be able to cool these fires down,” said Ray Geiger, chief of field operations for the Florida Division of Forestry. “Then I think we can say we turned the tide.”

Florida officials estimate that the cost of fighting the fires has exceeded $100 million. But that figure does not include lost revenue from tourism. After the cancellation of Saturday’s Pepsi 400 NASCAR race at Daytona International Speedway--an event expected to draw up to 250,000 visitors--many area hotels had vacancy signs posted.

No deaths have been reported as a direct result of the fire, but about 100 people, mainly firefighters, have been injured.

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Fireworks have been banned in this part of Florida, and in those places under evacuation orders. Any stores remaining open are prohibited from selling alcohol.

In this lumber mill town, the Flagler County seat, only the Jiffy Food Store was open. “We sold $3,000 worth of gas yesterday to people getting out of town,” manager Donna Benchoff said. “They were in a panic.”

Anxious Residents

Almost the only movement was at the Bunnell Volunteer Fire Department, where the firetrucks came and went through an encampment of television station satellite trucks.

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“Our only customers are firefighters,” Benchoff said. “Strangest Fourth I’ve ever had.”

Late Saturday, officials said the threat of fire in Flagler County was too great to allow residents to return to their homes before Monday.

“My heart goes out to these people because they don’t know if they have their homes or not,” Gov. Lawton Chiles said. When they do go home, Chiles added, “It will be a massive job trying to help them put their lives back together.”

In emergency shelters, the anxiety and worry over what remained at home was almost palpable. “I want to know when the hell I can get back in,” said Ed Maiocchi, a 54-year-old meat cutter who was sitting forlornly in a hangar-like building at the Volusia County Fairgrounds that had been set up to take in evacuees with pets.

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“I was cutting the grass Friday when we were told to go, and we left in 10 minutes,” he said, recalling the rush of fleeing his Palm Coast home. He and his wife, Enid, took with them a bagful of clothing, some personal papers, seven cats, two dogs and a pair of parakeets. Left behind, he said, were 60 to 100 finches.

“Those birds may die. They may be dead,” he said. “We have got to go back.”

Jay Lawyer, a pharmaceutical salesman who volunteered to manage the shelter, just east of Deland, said the lack of information weighed heavily on most of the 75 people taking refuge there. “They are safe, and their animals are here, but they just sit in front of the TV hoping for news of their homes,” he said. “It’s tough.”

‘Ordeal’ for Evacuees

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After fighting through miles of traffic and confusion Friday, evacuees found themselves in shelters at the YMCA in Deland, at the Daytona International Speedway, and at schools and churches as far away as Orlando. Carol and Rodney Thomas fled their Palm Coast home with two dogs and four cats and wound up in a residence hall at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.

They have been living under falling ash and the threat of evacuation for weeks, Carol Thomas said, and it was almost a relief when the call came. “Now I don’t want to go back until this is over,” she said. “Before, every time I left the house I was terrified that I wouldn’t be allowed back in. This has really been an ordeal.”

In sections of Volusia and Brevard counties, south of here, some evacuees were allowed to go home, and what they discovered was not always good. In Scottsmoor, about 15 miles north of the Kennedy Space Center, Dave Walker returned to his address Friday and found only ashes. “I’m starting to get over it,” he said. “Yesterday I sat in that front yard by myself and cried.”

Walker, a welder, said he and his wife, Michelle, would rebuild.

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Firefighters Reflect

After the panic of a massive evacuation, and the dangerous unpredictability of Friday’s wind-whipped fires, the relative calm here Saturday gave many of the 4,000 firefighters working here a minute for reflection.

“In 24 years as a firefighter, these are the worst I’ve seen,” said Alex Williamson, 47, of the Virginia Department of Forestry. He was checking hot spots Saturday in a woods south of Bunnell where plumes of white smoke rose like wispy ghosts from a stand of blackened slash pine.

“This is truly a wildland-urban interface, where the forest meets the people. And the fire’s been hard to control.”

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Williamson said he saw fires so massive they leaped over six lines carved by bulldozers and a four-lane highway before rushing through a section of Palm Coast and then jumping over Interstate 95. “When it does that, it’s rolling,” he said.

“And then you just have to depend on the man upstairs.”

Indeed, a drive past miles of charred woodland is surprising for what remains: occasional patches of green surrounding an intact house. State officials estimate that only 150 homes have been lost in this outbreak of fires, a tribute, say residents, to the courage and skill of firefighters who have poured into the area from more than 40 states.

“FF thank you,” read one message spray-painted on a sign and propped against a post along U.S. 1 in Brevard County.

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Of course, not everyone showed absolute respect for the threat of fire. One of the few people to defy Friday’s evacuation order in Bunnell was Gregory Clements, a 40-year-old landscaper. In the unusual tranquillity of a Fourth of July afternoon, he was drinking a beer and chatting with four other men at The Corner, a shade-tree hangout on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

“The wife and kids left, but I didn’t want to leave the house and all our stuff,” he said. “Now I think the danger has passed.”

Associated Press contributed to this story.


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