Dozens of homes lost as Florida battles wildfires

May 13, 2008

St. Petersburg Times--May 13, 2008

Associated Press Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Relentless wildfires burned into the early morning Tuesday across Florida’s Atlantic coast, taxing firefighters and overwhelming residents trying to save their homes with garden hoses.

Firefighters in the Brevard County town of Palm Bay have spent more than 48 hours battling the state’s biggest blaze, which has damaged about 70 homes and scorched 3,500 acres, or about 5 1/2 square miles.

"Everytime I turn around another house is on fire. We don’t have enough resources on our own to do a job like this," said Palm Bay spokeswoman Yvonne Martinez.

Officials expressed concern early Tuesday after flare-ups overnight. Flare-ups when humidity is higher can be a bad sign because fire spreads even more quickly during the drier and windier daylight hours, said Palm Bay Assistant Fire Chief Jim Stables.

"It’s going to be challenging to get the fire under control," he said.

All 18 schools in Palm Bay, including charter schools, will be closed Tuesday. Stretches of Interstate 95 and U.S. Highway 1 in Brevard County that had been closed due to smoke were reopened early Tuesday.

Just south of Palm Bay, a 3,000-acre blaze destroyed at least four homes in nearby Malabar, including the house Butch Vanfleet built in 1980 and tried in vain to protect with a garden hose.

"It’s devastation," he said. "All you see is nothing but ash in between the palm trees and the palmetto. There’s no grass. The fire just came so quickly, we barely got out of there."

Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency Monday as dry, windy weather worsened conditions. His orders allow Florida to use federal funds and bring local emergency workers under state control. It also allows Florida to call on other states for help, if necessary.

Firefighters may get some help Tuesday, since winds on the coast were expected to slow to 10 to 15 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

Authorities said the fire at Malabar may be the result of arson. A witness saw someone in a car drop something into an open field, and the fire started shortly afterward, an arson investigator said.

About 80 miles north in Daytona Beach, an 800-acre fire forced an evacuation order for about 500 homes, but residents were allowed to return Monday evening. No structures were reported damaged, though officials warned embers could fly more than a mile from the blaze and spark new hot spots.

Ray Ademski, a 68-year-old retiree, left his Daytona Beach home with his wife and their important papers when he saw columns of smoke Sunday night around the subdivision. He hosed down the roof and turned on the sprinklers in his yard before the couple left for a hotel.

"I could feel the heat from both sides," said Ademski, who returned by bicycle Monday to survey the damage. "The smoke was going straight into my eyes. It was terrible."

Hundreds of firefighters worked the state’s blazes, bulldozing highly flammable brush and vegetation and leaving behind less flammable dirt to keep the fires from advancing. At least three firefighters were injured Monday, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

Associated Press writers Jennifer Kay, Antonio Gonzalez, Kelli Kennedy and Suzette Laboy in Miami contributed to this report.

On the Net:

National Interagency Fire Center: