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Rain, Firebreaks Control Florida Blazes

<i> From Times Wire Services</i>

Weary but jubilant residents returned to smoky homes Friday as firefighters kept a wildfire a safe distance away.

“WELCOME HOME,” read a sign held by two volunteers who had answered calls from worried residents forced to leave their homes Tuesday as the fires crept close.

“We’re very lucky that a fire of that much devastation could come through and everybody’s OK,” volunteer Gail Roberts said.

Wildfires burned more than 8,000 acres of commercial timberland west of here in four days. But they were weakened by an overnight rain and were contained Friday beyond plowed firebreaks. A light smell of smoke remained in the city.

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President Clinton has declared a disaster and ordered federal aid to eight northern counties. Fires have charred 50,000 acres, burned 80 homes and forced thousands of people to evacuate.

The most dangerous fires Friday flared in northeastern Florida and along the Panhandle, state emergency management officials said.

“We started the week with 50 homes destroyed and by the end of the weekend we expect that number to double,” said Molly Payne, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Community Affairs, which has operated in a state of emergency since June 7 and is coordinating firefighting efforts.

Many of Waldo’s more than 1,000 residents followed the urgings of local officials and left their homes for emergency shelters and lodging with friends and relatives.

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Chenetta Ross was itching to go back home.

“I just want to see my house,” she said. “I bet we’ve spent $250 since Tuesday on clothes and everything else.”

Police Chief A.W. Smith watched the caravan of residents returning home from the side of the street.

“We were this far from losing the whole west side of this town,” he said, holding his thumb and finger about an inch apart. “I’m glad we still have a town.”

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However, the danger from the fires have not passed here or elsewhere.

With very little rainfall in the past month in many areas, state officials said this year’s May and June may be the driest in Florida history.

That has combined with scorching temperatures; on Friday, Jacksonville recorded a record high of 100 degrees.

A 5-mile stretch of Interstate 95 was closed about 50 miles south of Jacksonville because smoke from a nearby brush fire made it difficult to see. That fire was not near any homes though, and no residents were forced to evacuate.

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At least 137 fires have erupted in 34 of Florida’s 67 counties since May 25. The fires have destroyed about 12,000 acres of timberland and resulted in at least 14 injuries, one death and about $13 million in losses statewide.

A statewide ban on outdoor burning is in place.


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