Residents thankful injuries from FL fires remain low

BY JIM SKILLINGTON | FLORIDA | July 5, 1998


Tens of thousands of Florida residents will remember this weekend as the

year wildfires forced a change in their holiday plans.

On Sunday, most of the churches in Flagler County closed -- everyone was

ordered out to leave on Friday and more than 90 percent of the 45,000

residents complied.

But elsewhere across central Florida, congregations of the churches that

were open, gave thanks for their lives and the fact that so few have been

injured in the more than month-long fight against wildfires. "We need to

focus on the fact that the fires will be over," said John Murphy of Harvest

Time, an international resource ministry. "We still have our lives."

The disaster has been called "the Hurricane Andrew of wildfires," by Joe

Wooden, a spokesperson for the Volusia County Division of Emergency

Management. Saturday's weather brought a brief respite from the strong, dry

winds that had forced an estimated 100,000 area residents from their homes.

Weather forecasters were holding out the possibility of significant

rainfall by mid-week and hundreds of fire fighting crews and equipment from

around the country were pouring in to the fire-ravaged area.

But fire officials say it is too early to celebrate. While some of the

worst fires were brought under control by Saturday night, other fires were

still burning across the state. And a change in the wind could again

threaten significant populations.

The forecast for Sunday through Wednesday currently calls for

temperatures in the upper 90's and scattered thunderstorms. While the

thunderstorms have produced some locally heavy rain, the accompanying

lightning strikes are blamed for many of Florida's fires.

Faith-based organizations across the state have been assisting

firefighters by providing food and beverages. In addition, some volunteers

have been helping physically-challenged persons move to safer locations. On

Friday, volunteers from Adventist Community Services helped evacuate a

nursing home that was later destroyed by the fires.

In hard-hit Volusia County, many residents who had been forced from

their homes the previous day were allowed to come home on Saturday. But in

Flagler County, the mandatory evacuation was still being enforced late

Saturday.

The fires, fueled by unseasonably dry conditions and high winds, have

burned more than 400,000 acres and destroyed more than 150 homes since

Memorial Day.

Nearly 40 homes in Flagler County burned in early June as a result of

the wildfires and many of the homeowners of those houses are reporting

significant challenges with insurance settlements that are less than the

cost of making the repairs. "Insurance advocacy," may be one of the

greatest needs once the fires are controlled, Hill said.

In terms of personal injury and property damage state-wide, no one is

certain how many homes and businesses were destroyed, or exactly how many

people have been injured by wildfires in central Florida -- fire

officials were too busy trying to control the flames to stop and count all

of the losses.

Both property loss and personal injuries had been limited until late

Wednesday when fires that had been temporarily controlled jumped fire lines

in north central Florida and, propelled by dry western winds, raced toward

the Atlantic Coast endangering more than tens of thousands of homes.

"Our first priority is public safety," said a fire official. "The

second priority is trying to save structures." Despite the widespread

devastation, just 55 people -- primarily firefighters -- have

been injured in the month-long firefight.

In an attempt to provide a place for those evacuated to stay, officials

have opened dozens of shelters in schools and other public buildings.

However, as more and more communities were included in mandatory

evacuations Thursday night, many local churches were being opened as

secondary shelters.

Faith-based organizations are accelerating their efforts to help. County

emergency officials say countless local churches have provided assistance

in feeding and providing beverages for the more than 4,000 firefighters

trying to control the fires, said Jody Hill, executive director of Florida

Interfaith Networking in Disaster (FIND).

On Friday, volunteers with Adventist Community Services (ACS) helped to

evacuate a nursing home in Daytona, which later burned to the ground. In

addition ACS has been working with state and county officials to provide

food and re-hydration for the firefighters.

According to Lawrence A. Rankin, Associate Council Director for the

Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church, all of the local

churches within 50 miles of a fire in the Melbourne and DeLand districts,

have been put on alert in case they are needed for use as a feeding

station, secondary shelter or specialized pastoral care.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is among the

faith-based disaster response organizations to have sent money to assist in

the early stage of Florida relief efforts. Other disaster response

organizations are assessing the best way to respond.

The Salvation Army has been providing food, beverages and wet

towels, for fire fighters and is

helping state officials stock a warehouse in Daytona Beach with materials

needed for fire survivors, according to spokeswoman Mary Van Osdol.

But until the fires are extinguished and the disaster is contained,

some Florida disaster response organizations are adopting a "wait-and-see"

approach for any long-term relief efforts.

"A response as to what is needed isn't clear," said Jerry Richardville,

assistant

director of the Catholic Social Services in Orlando, Fla. "People are now

fleeing for their

lives and not thinking about their needs."

"All we can do is sit tight and respond. There's nothing proactive we

can do in a disaster," said Margaret Linnane, executive director of Second

Harvest Food Bank in Orlando, Fla.

Seminole Heart, an interfaith organization working in Seminole County,

is now trying

to help several rural families burned out of their homes in early June.

"The rural poor may not have any home insurance," said Paul J. Binder,

Church World Service's Disaster Resource Consultant. "They could

easily lose their homes to the fires and face total devastation."

While fire fighters have saved some homes from destruction that have been

within a few yards from the fires, many homeowners are finding the flames

have melted their well casings, Hill said. Repairs

may cost $1,000 to $1,500 per home.

President Clinton has made 47 counties in Florida affected by the

wildfires to be a major disaster, qualifying state for Federal Emergency

Management

Agency (FEMA) funds.

The assistance, to be coordinated by Federal Emergency Management Agency

(FEMA), may include grants to help pay for temporary housing, minor home

repairs and other serious disaster-related expenses. Low-interest loans

from the U.S. Small Business Administration also will be available to cover

residential and business losses not fully compensated by insurance.

Federal funds will also be provided for the state and affected local

governments in the four counties to pay 75 percent of the eligible cost for

debris removal and emergency services related to the disaster.

Meanwhile, while the headlines on regional newspapers proclaim, "Pray for

Rain!" state emergency officials, say what is really needed is several days

of prolonged, tropical rains. "How ironic it is to be hoping for a tropical

storm in Florida," said Hill.

Posted July 5, 1998


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