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Mandatory Evacuation Called in Fla.

June 25, 1998

ORMOND BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ Hundreds of residents streamed out of a wooded neighborhood today in an orderly procession of old pickup trucks and sedans filled with pets, clothes and valuables as a wildfire moved toward their homes.

A voluntary evacuation had been in place in the Plantation Pines neighborhood for the past two days but most residents had ignored it. That changed this morning as the fire crept closer to the neighborhood of dirt roads where many families keep horses and other animals.

``It’s like walking on Kellogg’s Corn Flakes _ it’s so dry. It’s ready to go,″ said Robert Johnson as he left his log cabin with his wife, Linda, and their three dogs. ``You could see the smoke laying in the pine trees very low. You could still smell that acrid odor.″

Tanker planes and a caravan of about eight backhoes on flatbed trucks headed into the community to dig a trench around the fires.

``It’s like an eight-armed octopus coming at us. It’s going in so many directions it’s just impossible to put it out and say it’s over,″ said George Thune, spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Small engine tankers dropped fire retardant and helicopters dropped water over the blaze. On the ground, 16 tractors cut a fire line.

Sue and Les Morris had ignored the voluntary evacuation but were packing up their motor home and preparing to leave just minutes after getting the order.

Morris was worried about his $100,000 car collection which included a Mustang convertible and two Corvettes he was restoring. He planned to place some of them in a field in hopes that they wouldn’t all burn together.

He had earlier placed sprinklers on his barn and home.

``I don’t know where I’m going to go,″ he said.

With dozens of fires burning throughout Florida, state Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford said he would ask the governor later in the day for a statewide ban on the use of fireworks by individuals.

Gov. Lawton Chiles was already considering such a ban and his office said a decision would likely be made by afternoon.

Crawford, whose department is responsible for fighting wildfires in most of Florida, said the ban would prohibit the sale and use of fireworks by individuals, but community displays may be excluded as long as organizers can show that adequate safety measures have been taken.

With the South stuck in a heat wave that has withered crops, firefighters have struggled to keep up with new blazes, even with the support of airplanes, helicopters, water tankers and bulldozers.

The Plantation Pines neighborhood is north of Ormond Beach, in Volusia County. Sheriff’s deputies had gone door-to-door informing residents of a mandatory evacuation order issued Tuesday. But they hadn’t enforced it.

Four of 447 families still were refusing to leave _ even after the fires crept dangerously close today.

Peggy Hogan and her husband, Bart McLean, sent their three horses, four dogs and six cats to stay with friends but refused to abandon their three acres of land _ not wanting to give up on the two-story home they’ve had for 10 years.

``It’s almost like if you leave, you’re saying it’s going to happen,″ Ms. Hogan said.

Some residents feared looters. ``There are people cruising around already,″ Mrs. Morris said.

Small fires that broke out Wednesday near DeLand were set intentionally, fire officials said. Investigators were also questioning two juveniles suspected of starting fires in Ormond Beach on Monday.

``There are a lot of wackos running around,″ said Stan Rosevear, chairman of the Volusia County Council. ``I don’t know if they like fires, but if that’s their bag, God help us.″

If winds calm down today, authorities plan to drop dozens of ping-pong balls filled with chemicals to create small fires when they hit. The idea is to burn out scrub brush and grass that can fuel larger fires.

More than 50,000 acres of woodlands, scrub and dried-out swamplands have burned in Volusia County. The area has had 3 inches of rain since April, about a foot less than expected. June is normally the wettest month for much of Florida.

Unrelenting heat and a lack of rain have made Florida dangerously dry, causing the worst outbreak of fires in more than 50 years. In many cases, as soon as firefighters beat down one blaze, another flares nearby.

Since May 25, fires throughout the state have scorched about 135,000 acres. One person died of a heart attack during an evacuation and nearly 30 have been injured.

In Georgia, state officials are seeking federal disaster aid to offset farmers’ crop losses because of a three-month drought that shows no signs of easing.

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