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35,000 Evacuated from Fla. Fires

July 2, 1998

ORMOND BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ Dozens of homes and buildings were destroyed overnight, 35,000 people fled their homes and the fires ravaging two counties were only expected to get bigger today.

``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. Temperatures above 100 were forecast for this afternoon.

In Brevard County, 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.″

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

``I don’t know if you’ve ever seen napalm,″ said Jerry Lefreniere, who was forced to flee his home in Mims. ``The results of napalm, that’s what it looks like out there.″

``I think Mother Nature has turned the barbecue up high. It’s really cooked out here.″

He said when the order came to evacuate, ``I asked him, `How much time? And he says `NOW!.′ And we could see the flames coming through the trees. ... My wife and I just got in the cars and drove.″ He didn’t know what happened to his home; some neighbors’ homes were already burning when he left.

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.

Since Memorial Day, more than 1,700 fires have burned more than 250,000 acres _ an area of almost 400 square miles, or roughly 17 times larger than the island of Manhattan. In an average year, Florida fires burn 112,000 acres.

Gov. Lawton Chiles canceled a 10-day vacation in North Carolina Thursday because of the crisis. He said the wildfires, which damaged or destroyed at least 86 homes, 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.

``We haven’t lost as many homes, but I think this one is worse because it is still going on,″ said Chiles, who planned to take an aerial tour today.

More than 125 miles of Interstate 95 _ the major East Coast artery _ was closed between Titusville and Jacksonville to the north. As the sun came up today, 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.

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

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.

As a dim glow flickered in the distance, marking the area where firefighters battled to save their homes, about 50 residents near Scottsmoor watched news updates on a portable televisions propped up on car hoods.

Nearby, about nine homeowners took firefighting into their own hands. They raced from home-to-home along dirt roads armed with a hose and shovels to put out small brush fires that dotted the woods.

``I can’t believe this place is still here,″ said John Lucier after the group smothered flames behind his home.

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.

In Brevard County, Rich Wiederhold, a district fire chief, saw an erratic fire engulf some rural mobile homes just inland from Cape Canaveral. ``It had several heads. It’s tough to say which way it’s going,″ he said.

Four hundred firefighters were battling that blaze, using bulldozers to plow firelines and helicopters to dump water on the flames.

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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