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Fires Evacuate 40,000 in Florida

July 3, 1998

ORMOND BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ With thick smoke hanging down to his waist, Danny Greaves had to lie on his stomach to catch a fresh breath. He wasn’t there for long, not with wildfires inching toward his parents’ home.

Down went nearby pines and palmettos, felled by his chain saw. Up went garden hoses, onto the roof. Shovel in hand, Greaves beat at a flaming tree.

``This is home,″ Greaves said early today, his voice raspy from 28 hours without rest. ``I can’t sit back and do nothing.″

But thousands of others could do nothing, ordered out of their homes when fires that have burned across Florida since Memorial Day raged out of control this week. Many residents can’t go back, barred by roadblocks.

The flames have burned more than 125 homes and forced nearly 40,000 people to seek other shelter. More than 425 square miles have been blackened, twice the land lost to fires in a normal year in Florida.

The fires along the state’s ravaged east coast showed no sign of letting up early today, with a smoky haze obscuring the sky as far away as Miami, 250 miles to the south. Firefighters have been stymied by gusty winds and temperatures of more than 100 degrees.

The fires have wrecked many Fourth of July plans, forced the postponement of Saturday’s Pepsi 400 stock car race at Daytona International Speedway and closed nearly 100 miles of Interstate 95 _ the major highway along the East Coast _ before one of the busiest travel weekends of the year.

Many fireworks displays already have been canceled for fear they might spark more wildfires across drought-stricken Florida.

By Thursday, 30,000 people were told to leave their homes in Volusia County, mostly in Ormond Beach and Daytona Beach. Another 10,000 were ordered to stay away from their homes in Brevard County.

Just east of Orlando, residents of 200 homes near the town of Christmas were forced to leave Thursday as winds sent fires their way.

Million-dollar homes and double-wide trailers alike were threatened in dozens of developments along a corridor stretching 45 miles from Titusville to Ormond Beach, just north of Daytona Beach.

``There are fires all over,″ said Charles Spagnola, who left his home in Ormond Beach as fires came within a half-mile. ``You never know when another is going to start up. It’s like sitting on a pile of dynamite.″

Before they fled their home in Brevard County, Catherine and Danny Goodrich managed to grab a suitcase of clothes, a box of photos and a stuffed deer head. A fire tore through their double-wide trailer near Scottsmoor overnight, leaving behind a charred metal frame.

As they toured the debris Thursday, they found the blackened bones of their 12-year-old dog, Murder, nestled on the remains of their bed.

``It felt just like my insides were pulled out of me,″ Goodrich said. ``I felt sick to my stomach.″

Gov. Lawton Chiles called on Florida mayors to send more equipment, including bulldozers, to clear fire lines around residential areas. With dry, blustery conditions predicted for the weekend, progress simply means not losing ground. Aerial water drops help, but the only salvation appears to be rain.

``We did not turn the corner,″ said Barry Baker, the fire chief in Ormond Beach. ``They were as volatile today as they were yesterday and they will be just as volatile tomorrow. We’re not going to put these out, we’re just trying to contain them.″

That wasn’t good enough for Greaves, a 26-year-old plaster contractor.

His neighbors obeyed the order Wednesday night to evacuate River Bend, a subdivision of two-storied houses and manicured lawns.

Greaves sent his parents packing. Then it was time to go to work, knocking down trees and wielding the garden hoses.

``He is a one-man army,″ said Karen Peatross, who lives next door and credits Greaves with saving her house.

One police officer arrived and told him it was time to leave. Two officers came back, then four officers, all demanding that he get out.

``I’ll be glad to,″ Greaves said he told them, ``just as soon as you get a fire truck out here.″

None came. Ms. Peatross’ son Bruce returned home Thursday and saw a hole in the tool shed framed by blackened wood. The broom was singed to the handle. Wooden bleachers behind the house were charred. Then he saw Greaves’ work _ garden hoses across the yard, soaking the house and the driveway.

``He saved this house,″ Peatross said. ``If he hadn’t have come over here, no telling what would have happened.″

Greaves kept his parents updated by cell phone. His father told him where to find the mask and snorkel in case his only way out was the Tomoka River, 100 yards behind the house.

The fires had moved on early today to threaten other subdivisions, leaving behind the sound of chirping locusts and crickets. At the end of Wildwood Court, Greaves’ work was finished for now.

``It’s not going to stop,″ he said before heading inside. ``There’s really no hope except for it to rain.″

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