17 April 1999

Wildfires Consume Homes in Central and South Florida

Wildfires stormed across Florida on Thursday, destroying up to 30 homes in Port St. Lucie, forcing 20 residents to flee in Osceola County and postponing an air show in Lakeland. The blazes were fueled by high winds and record-breaking temperatures, including a sweltering 97 in Melbourne, 95 in Orlando and 94 in Daytona Beach. Late Thursday, officials said about 200 more homes were in the fire's path in a rural area of Port St. Lucie, 100 miles southeast of Orlando on the Atlantic Coast. The blaze was spreading in three directions and had grown to 1,500 acres.

"It's a disaster, truly," said Ron Parrish, the acting St. Lucie County fire battalion chief. "It's not good out there now. We knew the conditions were bad . . . once [the fires] got going -- It's not contained and it's not under control." School Superintendent William Vogel ordered all schools closed Friday.

The Florida National Guard was leading the aerial assault on the fires, with two Black Hawk helicopters swooping over a canal to scoop up water in huge, 700-gallon buckets to drop on the blaze. "We are probably going to have a couple thousand acres burned all told," said Matt Winnell, spokesman for the state Division of Forestry. "We have lost a few homes today. We've committed all of our air resources throughout the day." About 5,000 homes lost power during the fires, officials said. In Osceola, two brush fires merged into one, charring about 1,700 acres and forcing evacution of about 70 houses in the Bay Lake community east of St. Cloud. An emergency shelter was set up at a church, but evacuees chose to stay elsewhere. The shelter was closed late Thursday By that time, the fire was headed away from the neighborhood and toward swampland. Even so, Osceola County Fire Rescue Chief Jeff Hall said he expected to battle it all night. No homes were damaged or destroyed, but two of the 30 evacuees suffered minor injuries.

Firefighters from Orlando, Kissimmee, St. Cloud and the state Division of Forestry fought the blaze with about 50 trucks and several aircraft. One of the first emergency calls came from El Dorado Court, where fire crept perilously close to homes. "I got called at work and hurried home," said Linda Foster of 1733 El Dorado Court. "They won't let me in to get my animals." Foster's husband, Michael, later spotted Cruella DeVil, the family's Dalmatian.. "She was under there cowering. They couldn't catch her," Michael Foster said. "When she saw me, she came right to me." School buses were diverted from the danger zone and sent to Michigan Avenue Elementary in St. Cloud. Twenty-three students waited there while school officials called their parents.

Osceola residents who want updates on the brushfires can call a special number -- (407) 932-3093 or, if they need shelter, they can call the Red Cross at (407) 894-4141. In Lakeland, a 250-acre fire postponed the Sun 'n Fun Fly-In, which drew 600,000 aviation fans last year during its seven-day run. Melbourne's high of 97 shattered the previous record for that date -- 92 in 1992. It tied the record for hottest day in April, set on April 25,1967. Orlando's high of 95 broke a 38-year-old record by 1 degree, while Daytona Beach's high of 94 beat the previous mark of 92 set in 1972. Making matters worse, the winds reached 20 to 25 mph by mid-afternoon Thursday as the temperatures soared.

"This is perfect weather for erratic fire behavior," said Lori Stone, a spokeswoman for the state Division of Forestry. "The wind is pushing it right along.". Forecasters said there should be some slight relief today as a cold front pushes through. The high is predicted in the mid- to upper 80s. The front will bring a 30 percent chance of scattered showers. But there is no other rain in sight.
Lenny Savino, Tyler Gray, Gary Taylor, Holly Kurtz, Amy C. Rippel and Charlene Hager-Van Dyke of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Wire services also were used.

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