Raging wildfires worry many south FL residents

BY SUSAN KIM | SOUTH FLORIDA | May 28, 1999


SOUTH FLORIDA (May 28, 1999) -- 'Scared' and 'on edge' is how residents of

South Florida describe their feelings as wildfires raged near enough to

billow heavy smoke over their homes. Although a little rain is predicted

around the state this weekend, fires are still burning, and nearly 300

volunteers and

20 local churches are on standby to respond should evacuations occur.

A wildfire ignited by lightning Monday in a wildlife preserve west of Palm

Beach burned more than 26,000 acres of rural, unpopulated grassland before

firefighters extinguished it. They are still fighting a subsurface fire that

has blanketed nearby communities with thick, smelly smoke.

Road travel became hazardous, and at least one person died in a car accident

caused by low visibility. Schools in Palm Beach County canceled classes

yesterday because of the smoke, which comes and goes as the wind shifts, and

fire dispatchers report they logged more than 100 calls per hour when smoke

was at its heaviest.

Delray Beach, under heavy smoke this week, had a respite Thursday and Friday

when the wind unaccountably shifted. "I want everyone to know that we pray a

lot down here," said Connie McGarry, a Delray resident. "It's just a very

scary situation because it seems completely unpredictable. For instance,

today looks like a beautiful sunny day. But that's just because the wind is

working for us. It could just as easily go the other way."

Three counties -- DeSoto, Collier, Glades -- already have a water shortage,

said Dr. Ron Patterson, field director for Christian Disaster Response.

"Already, people's well pumps are burning up because the water level has

dropped so low," he said. "Water could develop as the biggest need."

Response officials are concerned that fires will impact agricultural and

farm workers as fires in rural areas could wipe out crops and dwellings.

Often is it difficult to take heavy fire equipment into swampland that

skirts many farms.

Disaster response organizations and the American Red Cross are watching

closely, even as they busily prepare for hurricane season, which officially

starts June 1.

The First United Methodist Church in Stewart -- about 15 miles

away from the largest fire -- is keeping one eye on the flames and the other

on hurricane preparations. "We're ready for hurricane season when we're

prepared to feed 600 people a day," said George Bozone, director of missions

outreach. He added that working with other churches on an ecumenical basis

is vital before disaster strikes. "We don't just get together after a

disaster. Just this morning I've been in touch with four or five other

churches already."

The biggest difference in responding to fires versus hurricanes is the short

notice for evacuation people receive when a wildfire veers near, compared to

three or four days notice for many hurricane evacuations, said Susan Jones,

director of disaster services for the Martin County Red Cross.

"Sometimes people have maybe six minutes to grab what they can," she said.

"As a result, their mental trauma can be sharper and occur sooner."

Andrew Wehling, pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Port St. Lucie, said the

smoke is making everyone more nervous than the start of hurricane season.

Patterson added, "When you hear the word 'wildfires,' the word 'wild' hits

the nail on the head. You don't know where it will go or where it will

stop."

Being prepared can help quell anxiety -- and working with a group can help

people prepare. Wehling's church participates in Mustard Seed Ministries, a

community group that also includes other local churches, the Red Cross,

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

agencies. Other interfaith groups -- among them the Flagler County Disaster

Relief Coalition, Seminole Heart, and Florida Interfaith Natural Disaster

(FIND) -- held emergency meetings this week.

"It's clear that this threat has awakened the faith community to their need

for relationship building and disaster preparedness," said Jody Hill,

executive director of FIND.

A recent National Science Foundation study found that, while the number of

deaths and the costs in the U.S. associated with hurricanes decreased from

1975 to 1994, those numbers rose for wildfires.

Patterson said he thought this was due to the increasing amounts of fuel,

oxygen, and heat -- a volatile combination -- in Florida. "We are

overdeveloping our agricultural lands. We're not having controlled burns.

When you do that, you're asking for trouble in South Florida," he said.

Posted May 28, 1999


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