The Heat Is Online

Florida fires -- June, 1998

"As fears grow, fires spread in Florida", The Boston Globe, July 3, 1998

By Brad Liston

Ormond Beach, Fla - Just three days ago, firefighters in central Florida basked in the praise of Vice President Al Gore who, at every step in his tour of the fire-ravaged region, remaroed on the "miracle" that firefighters had managed to protect every house and every life.

Yesterday, however, Brevard County Fire Chief Mark Francwesconi stared at the ground and bit off his words.

"We just don't have the resources to protect property. We have to concentrate on efforts to protect life," he said. "We've lost maybe 50 homes. I don't know how many businesses. We can fight the fires, but we can't fight the weather."

Weather has been cruel to Florida. From November to March, El Nino dumped torrential rains on the Sunshine State, causing the pine and palmetto scrub that fills the state's interior to grow thick and lush. Then came May and June, the hottest, driest months in the 163 years of existing records, and all that new growth turned to kindling

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Also:

"Florida fires burn on, air spotters called in," Reuters, June 24, 1998

By Michael Peltier

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Authorities in tinder-dry Florida called in Air National Guard units with infrared cameras on Tuesday to help battle nearly 100 fires threatening small communities in the northeast of the state.

In Putnam, Flagler and Volusia Counties, firefighters have been hindered in their efforts by blanketing smoke, which has prevented them from finding the source of fires that continue to burn.

"We need to run some infrared over there," said Gene Madden, spokesman for the Florida Division of Forestry. "We know there is fire. It's just real tough to find it."

State emergency officials estimate that 100,000 acres (40,000 hectares) have been consumed by wildfires that have flared up across the state in the past month.

While fires near Jacksonville in northeast Florida have largely been brought under control, a huge series of fires south of the city continue to burn.

"The biggest area of concern today remains the Bunnell complex (fire), in Putnam, Volusia, Flagler and St. Johns counties," said David Greenberg, spokesman for the Florida Department of Emergency Management (DEM).

"In Putnam County, the fire that had been moving east has turned toward the west," Greenberg said. "In front of it are a number of small Putnam County communities. There is concern about that." Some 200 people live in those communities.

More than 1,000 state firefighters and an equal number of federal and local personnel are battling nearly 100 fires statewide that are burning at any given time.

High heat and no rain have made the state a veritable tinder box. Officials say the fires that have been burning since May 25 are the worst since 1985 and if they continue may be the most severe in nearly 50 years.

Volusia County officials set up an emergency command post in the jail, the most fireproof government building in the county with its own power supply, county spokesman Dave Byron said.

"This is a very trying time and these fires are not just going to go away. We're warning people they could be in for another week or more of smoke and fire," Byron said.

On the beach at Ormond, the sun was no more than a dim orange disk through the smoky haze that has been a persistent and unwelcome visitor for a week.

Sand and surf were all but abandoned by swimmers and sunbathers, while five miles (eight km) south, in Daytona, where the air was somewhat more clear, tourists frolicked, but vendors, exposed to the particle-filled atmosphere, complained of sore throats and burning eyes.

"By the afternoon I can hardly talk, my throat burns so much," said Debbie Love, who rents beach chairs and umbrellas from a trailer on the beach.

About 3,000 acres (1,200 hectares) of wildlife refuge burned near the Kennedy Space Centre in Brevard County, fire officials there said. No structures were threatened and crews from the space centre continued to battle the blaze.

Weather forecasts suggested an increased chance of rain on Tuesday, but Greenberg said the forecasts were mixed and the rain may miss fires altogether.

Three firefighters received minor injuries fighting fires over the past 24 hours, bringing to 20 the number of emergency workers injured from the blazes that have caused one death.

(C) Reuters Limited 1998.

Also:

"Florida Fires Threaten Crops," AP/NBC News, June 23, 1998.

ORMOND BEACH, Fla., June 23 -- Florida is facing a public-health crisis as it battles the worst outbreak of wildfires in the state in more than 50 years. More fires are expected and the state's $6 billion-a-year agriculture industry is being threatened.

The air was filled with smoke so thick Tuesday that infrared equipment was being used to locate the flames in hard-hit Volusia County in northern Florida.

"They couldn't see where the fire was," said David Greenberg, a spokesman for the state Division of Emergency Management. According to reports from The Associated Press, the smoke was so thick, people drove with their headlights on in the middle of the day. In wooded areas, bright orange flames 15 to 20 feet high were bringing down entire trees at once.

The fires have charred 118,000 acres, about 184 square miles, and have erupted in each of Florida's 67 counties except Monroe, which covers the Florida Keys. Twenty thousand acres were scorched Monday alone.

An average of 80 new fires is sparked every day, 90 percent of them by lightning. The blazes have destroyed more than 100 homes and structures, damaged an estimated $10 million in commercial timber and left a smoky haze in cities such as Jacksonville, Daytona Beach, Tallahassee and Orlando.

"It's been so hot and dry, everybody's spread thin and just worn out," said Suzy Huff, a volunteer firefighter.

Dense smoke isn't the only thing slowing down firefighters. One hundred-degree temperatures along with hot winds have created what fire crews call "blow-out" conditions, which have been responsible for the fires that pop up everywhere.

Large water tanks were being hauled around, bringing water to firefighters in areas where there are no hydrants, but one fire captain in Volusia County said the most effective tools against the fires are bulldozers. And he said he doesn't have enough of those.

There is no rain in the weather forecast for at least a week, desperate news not only for property owners but for Florida's farmers, some of whom are being threatened by the drought.

An estimated 90 percent of Florida's corn crop has been lost at a cost of $20 million, as has 95 percent of the hay crop for a $20 million loss and at least a quarter of the peanut crop, a $15 million loss, according to agriculture officials.

Farmers also have lost about a quarter of their cotton, watermelons and soybeans, a combined loss of $25 million. North of Pensacola, near the Alabama line, the entire corn crop has been destroyed, and every day more cotton and soybeans die. "We're right on the precipice of major losses in all the crops," Max Griggs, an Escambia County extension officer, said Tuesday.

In and near Ormond Beach, north of Daytona Beach on Florida's east coast, hundreds of residents were forced from their homes Tuesday for the second time in 24 hours as advancing wildfires threatened their neighborhood.

"I've been feeling my lungs burning and my eyes burning," said Maria Pinzon of Fort Myers, who was staying at a time-share in Ormond Beach. "We had some friends in New York who changed their minds about coming down here. They didn't want to expose their son to all this smoke."

A fire that snaked through woods along State Road 40 in Ormond Beach came within hundreds of yards of Margaret Williams' house before it was doused by water dropped from helicopters.

Williams had placed two sprinklers on her roof Monday and scattered others around the yard. She put her jewelry and bills in a fireproof safe, and left a packed suitcase at the back door in case she had to escape.

( NBC's Fredricka Whitfield and The Associated Press contributed to this report.)