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Florida Fire Victims Survey Damage

April 17, 1999

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. (AP) _ Martha Brann started to cry when she thought about all she lost when her ranch-style house burned to the ground.

Gone were the photos of her children, the diamond ring from her ex-husband and her mother’s gold wedding band _ all mementos representing special times in her life.

``I couldn’t get nothing,″ she said Friday in front of the charred rubble that remained of her three-bedroom home, one of 43 destroyed by a raging wildfire the day before.

Thirty-three other homes were damaged in the 545-acre blaze in the wooded neighborhood west of Port St. Lucie. No injuries were reported.

With the fire controlled but flames still smoldering Friday, firefighters were heartened by rain that began falling at dusk and the prospect of thunderstorms today in the Port St. Lucie area.

It was a lack of recent rainfall _ 90 percent below normal during Florida’s traditional dry season _ that has produced tinder-dry conditions throughout the state.

Thirty new fires burned 2,266 acres Friday, including 1,700 acres in Collier, Lee and Hendry counties, Barbara Doran, spokeswoman for the state Emergency Operation Center in Tallahassee, said Saturday.

More than 2,450 fires have burned 60,166 acres in 1999, Doran said.

Authorities suggested Thursday’s blaze may have been sparked by an arsonist, then helped along by record-high temperatures and strong 30 mph winds.

At random, the fast-moving blaze skipped some homes, while torching others.

Bob Dufresne was among the fortunate ones. Across the street from his two-bedroom house, the woods were charred. So were the pines and shrubbery in an adjacent lot. Behind his property, only the yellow stucco walls remained of a neighbor’s house.

Somehow, Dufresne’s house survived. Though the inferno burned within inches of its wood exterior, the building remained untouched.

``That’s pretty fantastic,″ said the 49-year-old handyman. ``It’s like somebody was watching over us ... It burned on all sides, but not us. That’s really weird, isn’t it?″

Dufresne got a helping hand from Jim Scheib and Bill Harvey, who live nearby.

When the fires first hit, Scheib borrowed a 4,000-gallon sewage tanker from a friend who runs a disposal company. Scheib and Harvey raced around the neighborhood, spraying water at anything in danger of burning. Every so often, they stopped to douse their own properties.

``You’d see the flames jump from one place to another,″ said Scheib, 30, who refilled the tanker three times from a nearby canal. ``You’d put it out, but they’d keep coming back on. Somehow, we got spared.″

As he surveyed the blackened scene in front of him, Dufresne was reminded of a comment he made while looking over the same acreage just a few days before.

``I said, ’Boy, if a fire ever comes across here, it’ll just cook like that,‴ he recalled.

Officials warned that Florida was not out of danger, and said fires were burning in about a third of the state’s 67 counties Friday. At least 7,000 acres had burned in central and southwestern Florida and in St. Lucie County about 100 miles southeast of Orlando. Small fires also persisted in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

John Fish, a senior forester with the state Division of Forestry, warned that ``it’s like a powder keg around the state.″

``Some of them haven’t gone off yet and it can happen at any time,″ he said.

Before surveying the damage by helicopter Friday, Gov. Jeb Bush said he was asking for an additional $13.2 million in the state budget for firefighting efforts. Federal officials also said they will make money available to help with costs.

``This is something we are going to have to deal with around the state for the rest of the year,″ Bush said.

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