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FL fires force new evacuations

BY SUSAN KIM | GAINESVILLE, FL | February 29, 2000

GAINESVILLE, FL (Feb. 29, 2000) -- Fire season intensified in Florida

this week when a brush fire burned through commercial timber lands

north of Gainesville. The wind-swept flames forced some 500 people to

be evacuated from their homes on Sunday.

At least one school -- the Westwood Middle -- opened as a shelter,

and churches were on standby to offer shelter and food to evacuees as

needed. By Monday, the blaze was 90 percent under control.

The blaze ignited Saturday in dry brush and charred more than 3,000

acres by mid-day Sunday, forcing evacuations from Seminole Woods,

Hidden Lake, and Buck Bay subdivisions.

Although there were no reports of injuries or damage to buildings,

according to the Alachua County Office of Emergency Management, the

fire came within a quarter mile of residences.

"We've got so much dry underbrush -- and the wind doesn't help," said

Gainesville resident Tuelah Keith. "We had a little bit of rain

yesterdaybut not enough to saturate the ground. My granddaughter had

a real bad fire in Otter Creek. It almost got her house."

Two years ago and last year, churches took special offerings and

provided relief supplies and food for families displaced by the

fires. "So far it isn't real bad," said the Rev. Shane Owens, a

pastor at the Covenant Presbyterian Church. "It's 90 percent under

control today but last year, entire counties had to be evacuated."

Florida is entering the heart of its dry season. Two years ago, brush

fires burned hundreds of thousands of acres in central and north

Florida, forcing massive evacuations along the east coast.

In June 1998, 100,000 people were evacuated from their homes when

wildfires in the state burned 500,000 acres, and destroyed 37 homes

in Flagler County and 14 in Seminole County. Entire towns were forced

to evacuate in a matter of minutes. The state suffered $1 billion

worth of losses, and all but three of its 67 counties were declared

federal disaster areas, some up to six times.

During the state's dry season smaller wildfires burn throughout the

state, and frequently shifting winds can make fire paths

unpredictable. Wildfires are often ignited by lightning.

Ongoing drought conditions in many areas across the nation are

aggravating conditions in fire-prone areas.

During April 1999, fire consumed 43 homes and damaged 33 more in St.

Lucie County, FL. Another fire, which started in the Everglades,

burned at least 70,000 acres of marshland, sending clouds of smoke to

darken the Miami area. Firefighters from Texas and Arkansas were

called in to help control the massive Everglades blaze, which closed

the main route across south Florida known as Alligator Alley.

In May 1999, a wildfire ignited by lightning in a wildlife preserve

west of Palm Beach burned more than 26,000 acres of rural,

unpopulated grassland before firefighters extinguished it.

Last year, rainfall was 90 percent below normal.

The situation can change in a matter of minutes, cautioned the Rev.

Tom Derrough, pastor at First United Methodist Church in Port St.

Lucie, midway between Miami and Orlando, where families from that

church lost their homes and six suffered damage.

In Port St. Lucie, churches have organized within a community group

dubbed "Mustard Seed," which also includes the American Red Cross,

Salvation Army, food pantries, clothes closets, and state and local

agencies to help current -- and future -- fire survivors.

Other interfaith groups involved with recovery from the fires -- and

preparing for future ones - are Florida Interfaith Natural Disaster

(FIND) and Flagler County Disaster Relief Coalition. Crisis

counseling and pastoral care are often among survivors' priority

needs, according to interfaith group leaders. Fire department

chaplains also play an important role in long-term fire fighting.

Individual churches also responded last year and are prepared to

respond this year as well. Last year, Grace Lutheran Church, with

nearly 10 other Lutheran churches in the Port St. Lucie area,

initiated an "adopt-a-family" program in cooperation with the Red

Cross and Lutheran Brotherhood.

Worse-than-normal fires during the past year have caused forecasters

and residents alike to blame global warming as one of the culprits. A

team of California scientists released a report in November 1999

indicating that global warming will bring more frequent major storms

and less reliable water supplies to California. In the mid-Atlantic

states, many environmental groups warn that the droughts such as this

summer's will get even worse because of global warming.

Although the effects of global warming are difficult to pinpoint,

climate scientists report that the average temperature of the earth's

lower atmosphere has increased nearly one degree over the past

century.

Steve Brown, manager of the Reno office of the National Weather

Service, said that one degree is not very much of a departure from

average. "The average temperature of the world has come up a fraction

of a degree or one degree," he said. "But if you look back in history

there has been cooling and warming."

But scientists warn that a rise of less than one degree can increase

both the frequency and intensity of disaster. Extended droughts,

flooding in New York subways, parts of Brooklyn under water, lack of

fish in the Pacific Ocean, increased storm coastal storm damage, are

just some of the disasters associated with global warming.

Posted Feb. 29, 2000


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