Fire risk grows in FL

BY SUSAN KIM | PORT ST. LUCIE, FL | April 22, 1999


PORT ST. LUCIE, FL (April 22, 1999) -- Last Thursday, fire consumed 43

homes and damaged 33 more in St. Lucie County. Now, Florida residents have

been warned that the risk is even greater than it was last week.

Although the Port St. Lucie fire is out, people anxiously await updates as

smaller wildfires burn throughout the state, drought conditions continue

and frequently shifting winds make fire paths unpredictable. Another fire,

which started in the Everglades, has already burned 70,000 acres of

marshland and clouds of smoke are darkening the Miami area. In northern

Florida, 35 families were evacuated and one house destroyed in a 200-acre

fire near Panama City.

The situation can change in a matter of minutes, said 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.

"I saw the fire. In fact, I drove right through it. But it didn't look

unusual at first. We have a lot of brushfires out here. But then I saw firetrucks coming in from Fort Lauderdale and Boynton Beach. Then I saw black smoke -

- which meant that homes were burning -- instead of the usual white smoke,"

said Derrough.

"It was very scary. Some people had minutes to get out of their homes. We

started calling all of our church members who live in that area. When I

found out that two families from the church lost their homes at first I

couldn't even reach them. I didn't know who was where. But now we know one

family is staying with relatives and the other is in a hotel," he said.

"It's time now to help people face their spiritual struggles and give them

emotional support. We are going to incorporate some extra public prayer

time into the service."

First United Methodist Church is just one spoke in a wheel of ecumenical

and community organizations in Port St. Lucie. Through a community group

dubbed "Mustard Seed," churches are working with the American Red Cross,

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

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

Local churches are not only looking after their own members but are

reaching out to other fire survivors too. At Grace Lutheran Church in Port

St. Lucie, two families had what the Rev. Andrew Wehling describes as "a

close call" -- so close that the swingset in one family's backyard burned

away.

"Even though nobody in our church lost their home, we wanted to help," said

Wehling. Grace Lutheran Church, with nearly 10 other Lutheran churches in

the area, have initiated an "adopt-a-family" program in cooperation with

the Red Cross and Lutheran Brotherhood. "We have already adopted a family

that was renting their home, but didn't have renter's insurance and lost

everything," he said.

The 43 displaced families from Port St. Lucie are living with relatives, in

hotels, or in rented dwellings. All but two reported having fire insurance.

The Red Cross was able to close its shelter near City Hall and turn it into

a Relief Center, said Susan Jones, Red Cross director of disaster services

for Martin County.

The Red Cross is distributing vouchers to families so they can purchase

food and clothing. "We found that this method better answers individual

needs," she said. "But some very generous donations came in from people

offering their condominiums to fire survivors until they got back on their

feet."

State emergency response officials and Federal Emergency Management Agency

representatives are still assessing damages.

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.

"Past experience and current weather reports warn us that this may be only

the beginning of our wildfire problems this spring," said Jody Hill, FIND

executive director. Hill predicted that crisis counseling and pastoral care

will be among the priority needs.

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.

Fire department chaplains play an important role in long-term fire

fighting, said the Rev. Thomas Engbers, a chaplain for the Miami/Dade

County Fire Department and past president of the Federation of Fire

Chaplains.

"Sometimes I'm on the scene and I just look at the firefighters and the

other emergency service personnel," he said. "I'm seeing who's burnt out,

who needs to rest. Then I might tell the chief or an authority on the

scene. We call that 'flagging' someone. It's a way of ensuring that people

take care of themselves."

Last June, 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.

This year, rainfall is 90 percent below normal -- even lower than last

year. Weather predictions show no substantial rain in sight, and already

more than 2,500 fires have burned 130,000 acres across the state.

Posted April 22, 1999


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