Local News

Wildfires Force Thousands From Homes in Eastern Florida

Posted July 1, 1998

— At least 80 homes and other buildings were burned overnight, 35,000 people were evacuated, and as temperatures soared, the fires ravaging two counties were only expected to get bigger today.

More than 125 miles of Interstate 95 - the major East Coast artery - was closed from Jacksonville south to Titusville, near Cape Canaveral. The closed roads, the thick smoke and the threat of encroaching fires forced postponement of the first night NASCAR race at Daytona International Speedway.

The Rivera family, heading to Florida from Pennsylvania, found themselves wondering how they would get to their destination for a 4th of July vacation. Ricardo Rivera says he'll just have to rely on detour signs when he gets close.

``The results of napalm, that's what it looks like out there,'' said Jerry Lefreniere, who was forced to flee his home in Mims. Napalm is jellied gasoline, used extensively during the Vietnam war.

``I think Mother Nature has turned the barbecue up high,'' Lefreniere added. ``It's really cooked out here.''

Temperatures above 100 were forecast for afternoon.

``Mother Nature is not cooperating. We're expecting gusts of wind up to 20 mph throughout the day. Things will get worse as the day progresses,'' said Joe Wooden, a spokesman for Volusia County Emergency Management, just after sunrise.

In Brevard County, just south of Volusia on Florida's east coast, Fire Chief Mark Francesconi said firefighters did not have enough equipment and help to keep the blazes away from homes. He said he did not think fires could be stopped before they reached the Indian River to the southeast.

``This is ugly,'' Francesconi said. ``There are houses burning right now. They're very short of resources.''

The wind-whipped fires jumped State Road 46 in three places just before noon today, threatening two trailer parks and more than 300 homes as it moved southeast toward Interstate 95. Footlong pieces of ash dropped from the sky.

Farther south, police in Titusville were telling the city's 40,000 residents to be ready for the worst.

``If it jumps 95, we're going to evacuate Titusville,'' police Capt. Steve Bridges said. ``It'll be like Ormond Beach, maybe worse.''

Officials were trying to tally the number of buildings destroyed. In Volusia, the early count was at least 10 homes and as many as 20 businesses. In Brevard, about 50 homes were destroyed along with many businesses.

``This is the worst fire situation we've ever had,'' said Gov. Lawton Chiles, who was touring fire areas. ``We're having 90 to 100 new fires every day.''

Since Memorial Day, more than 1,900 fires have burned more than 280,000 acres - an area of more than 425 square miles. The fires have damaged or destroyed at least 96 homes and 57 other structures in that time. In an average year, Florida fires burn 112,000 acres.

Chiles canceled a 10-day vacation in North Carolina because of the crisis. He said the wildfires have lasted much longer and threatened a far wider area than the fires of summer 1985, which destroyed 200 homes in the Palm Coast area.

The spreading inferno led officials to postpone to Oct. 17 the Pepsi 400, a major NASCAR race which was expected to draw around 150,000 fans. While the fires have not directly affected the 480-acre speedway, access for fans was questionable. The race was to be held at night for the first time and broadcast live on prime time television.

``Our manpower, facilities and resources will remain completely devoted to our community until this crisis is over,'' speedway president John Graham said.

The state's seemingly never-ending battle against the fires heated up Wednesday when blazes jumped firelines and seemed immune to an aerial water assault. Flames injured at least five firefighters in Brevard County - three of whom suffered second-degree burns.

Beth Wright grabbed her 5-year-old son, Evan, and raced out of her home in Holly Hill near Daytona Beach at 2 a.m. ``It smelled like I was living in a barbecue,'' she said.

As the sun came up, fires were torching homes as firefighters rushed to keep up with the hot spots.

``This area has been menaced by hurricanes. This is probably the first time in Volusia County history that we've had this kind of an evacuation during a fire,'' said Len Ciecieznski, a county emergency spokesman.

About 30,000 people were told to leave their homes in Volusia County, mostly from Ormond Beach and the northwest section of Daytona Beach, Wooden said. About 5,000 were ordered to leave in Brevard, many for the third time in two days.

``I moved here two years ago to get away from the freezing cold weather and the ice storms,'' said Bill Faust, formerly of Oldridge, N.J., who fled his apartment in Daytona Beach early Thursday. ``This is the straw that broke the camel's back. I feel like going back to Jersey.''

Dozens of homes and businesses in Ormond Beach were damaged or destroyed in the fire.

At Atlantic High School in Port Orange, one of eight shelters set up to take in evacuees, a partition divided a gym. One half was set aside for about 130 evacuees with special needs, many who had been bused there from a nursing home. The other half sheltered about 150 people, mostly families.

Edward Jolman said he could not sleep on his Red Cross cot.

``You wonder if you have a home when you go back,'' Jolman said. ``They told us we had five minutes (to evacuate). It was chaos. Nobody knew what to do or where to go.''

Among the businesses destroyed were a Dairy Queen, Stuckey's and a Citgo gas station. Chemko Technical Services Inc. exploded as balls of chemical-fed flames shot high above tree tops. An auto salvage yard was engulfed as a large field of junked cars spit out pops of flames as they exploded.

Many people kept all-night vigils outside barricaded neighborhoods, gathering in groups with belongings and pets as smoke and falling ash surrounded them.

With the evacuations came quick tempers. At least three people were arrested in confrontations with deputies.

One of them, Michael Shimshack, was charged with attempted murder for allegedly trying to run down a deputy who wouldn't let him go home to retrieve his boat. The deputy, Ed Hatten, was treated at a hospital after complaining of abdominal pains and numbness.

Along U.S. Highway 1, part of which was shut down, pickup trucks filled with pets, clothing, TVs and other belongings were assembled near a convenience store.

``You know what's sad is when you look around your home and say, `What part of my life do I want to leave behind?''' said Suzie Hampton.


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