FL fires burn 70+ homes


PORT ST. LUCIE, FL (April 20, 1999) -- It was a scene eerily reminiscent

of last year when Florida wildfires forced entire towns to evacuate.

Although fires have burned intermittently for weeks, it wasn't until April

15 when the flames began to damage lives.

Forty-three homes in the coastal town of Port St. Lucie were destroyed

and an additional 33 damaged when one of the fires got out of control.

Ted Kanamine, of the St. Lucie American Red Cross, said the shelter was opened

immediately and had served 70 people. He said he expected the shelter, in a

community center across from City Hall, to remain open until April 23.

Although 43 people lost everything, most of those were homeowners who appear

to have adequate insurance, Kanamine said.

Fire officials are keeping a close watch on an Everglades fire that started

small and quickly grew to inferno proportions, consuming 100,000 acres by

the morning of April 19. It is expected to destroy 150,000 acres before it

burns itself out. No homes are in danger.

Since the beginning of this year, more than 2,500 fires have burned 130,000


With rainfall at 90 percent below normal, and no real rain predicted in the

near future, it's a matter of time before the entire state is battling

fires. But the lessons learned from last year's summer-long, state-wide

bonfire will help minimize the damage.

"There's no question the entire state is more aware they're sitting on a

bomb," said Jody Hill, executive director of Florida Interfaith Natural


More interfaith groups are in place, including Flagler Disaster Relief

Coalition, and they are better prepared, Hill said. "We've got five times

as many groups or emerging groups than we had a year ago," she said.

Last year stretched the resources of government agencies and non-profit groups

alike. In 1998 Florida suffered $1 billion worth of insured and uninsured

losses. All but three of its 67 counties were declared federal disaster

areas, some up to six times.

The state was hit with record-setting destruction from hurricanes, tornadoes,

drought, flooding and fire.

But it was the fire that caught everyone off guard, Hill said.

One month before the fires began causing major problems for the state, Hill

said she attended a governor's conference on hurricanes. A disaster response

expert from California was conducting one of the seminars and he asked

those attending to list some of the disasters Florida could face. All the

traditional ones were there. Fire was not one of them.

The leader told the group California battles wildfires quite often. Many of

the participants were quick to point out California also had earthquakes,

another disaster which Florida didn't have. One month later those words

came back to haunt.

"I think we have a new awareness now," Hill said.

Several fires are burning throughout the state now, but with the

exception of the Port St. Lucie and the Everglades fires the firefighters

have been able to keep them under control and stop the spread.

Although last year's fires consumed nearly 500,000 acres, most homeowners

were spared. Flagler County lost 87 homes and Seminole County lost 14. Many

of the homes in Flagler weren't primary residents but structures used for

fishing or hunting outings.

Those who found themselves without homes in Seminole County were treated to

the quick response of Seminole Heart and the Mennonite Disaster Services.

The MDS were already working in Seminole County to build new homes for the

survivors of the tornadoes that swept through in February 1998. They quickly

included those survivors of the fires, too, Hill said.

Updated April 20, 1999

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