Homes threatened on both coasts

Wildfires burn, threaten homes in Florida, California

BY VICKI DESORMIER | May 24, 2008



"This is one of those years that is exceptionally bad, but it's the natural way of things in Florida."

—Senior Forester Dale Armstrong


Wildfires on both coasts destroyed and threatened homes and have prompted evacuation orders.

In California, a fire in the Santa Cruz Mountatins that has blackened more than 3,400 acres and destroyed at least a dozen homes was 20 percent contained Saturday as higher humidity and cooler weather was forecast.

The Santa Cruz fire has prompted voluntary and mandatory evacuation orders for more than 1,400 homes. According to fire officials Saturday morning, at least 500 homes were being threatened by the blaze.

The fire is continuing to burn through steep, wooded ravines and hillsides.

In Florida, thick black smoke has choked off a number of highways including, on a few occasions, sections Interstate 95 the main north-south artery along the eastern part of the state. The sun has been obscured by the thick pall of smoke in Miami and other cities as firefighters fought wildfires in the Everglades.

Already this year, fires have ravaged tens of thousands of acres of wilderness. Hundreds of homes have been damaged or destroyed by the blazes.

"In May or June we sort of expect this," said Florida Division of Forestry Senior Forester Dale Armstrong. "This is one of those years that is exceptionally bad, but it's the natural way of things in Florida."

On Mother's Day, intentionally-set fires ravaged thousands of acres in Palm Bay in southern Brevard County, destroying 30 homes and damaging more than a hundred others. A smaller series of fires a bit north near Cocoa damaged several hundreds of acres of land. A week later, fires flared up in about 21,000 acres of the Everglades, far from houses, but sending dark clouds of smoke over Miami and other areas across the whole south of the peninsula.

Last weekend, the Florida Divison of Forestry, which handles fires that are not burning on private or municipal lands, reported it was fighting at least 90 fires around the state. Close to 40,000 acres were actively burning, officials in the Okeechobee office of the division said. The majority of fires are in Glades County around Lake Okeechobee. Some fires were continuing to burn in Brevard County.

In the early part of the week, some rain brought a bit of relief for firefighters, though the fires were far from extinguished. And then, on Wednesday, a new fire ignited in Lake County, northwest of Orlando.

About 150 homes in the town of Paisley were evacuated because fire officials feared that fire could spread across the main highway through town, trapping residents if the fire were to threaten their homes. The fast moving flames burned about 600 acres before firefighters were able to contain it on Wednesday evening.

Thirty-five people spent the night in a Red Cross shelter at the First Baptist Church of Paisley. People in town were nervous about the fires, said volunteer Pat Phillips who stayed overnight to help feed and comfort the evacuees.

She said the shelter would remain open to feed and house residents if they needed it. Paisley, which is on the southern border of the Ocala National Forest, was hit hard by the tornadoes that moved through Lake and Volusia counties on Groundhog Day in 2007. Phillips said the destruction from those storms is still fresh in some people's minds.

"Everyone's in a pretty good mood," she said. "They're just nervous about their property, but we're hearing that the houses are out of danger and everyone can go home in the morning. But with fires, you never know."

In neighboring Volusia County, some 50 acres burned, but that blaze was quickly contained that afternoon. According to Forestry Division spokesman Timber Weller, the fire in Volusia never threatened any homes, though it was in the vicinity of a Deltona government complex.

Despite all the acres burned and the numbers of homes damaged and destroyed, there have been no fatalities reported from any of the Florida fires so far this year. Three firefighters have reported minor injuries while battling the flames.


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