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Overwhelmed Florida firefighters focus on saving homes

A forest in Volusia County  

Special pingpong balls may be dropped on flames

June 24, 1998
Web posted at: 9:16 p.m. EDT (0116 GMT)

DELAND, Florida (CNN) -- Firefighters struggled to contain wildfires threatening homes in densely wooded areas of Volusia County in east-central Florida Wednesday, and may resort to chemical-filled pingpong balls in their efforts.

Flames were jumping from tree to tree and coming as close as a mile from some homes. Depending on wind conditions, authorities Wednesday night or Thursday morning planned to drop dozens of balls filled with glycerin and another chemical.

The balls will create small fires when they hit the ground. The goal is to eliminate the trees, brush and grass that act as fuel for the larger fires that threaten homes.

Fires in Volusia County, Florida
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Officials suspected arson may be to blame for many of the fires in Volusia County, including one near the Daytona Park Estates subdivision.

"There are a lot of wackos running around," said Stan Rosedear, chairman of the county council. "I don't know if they like fires, but if that's their bag, God help us."

Firefighters were tapping all their options -- airplanes, helicopters, water tankers and bulldozers.

'We've really got it bad'

Instead of fighting an impossible battle against all the fires, firefighters focused on protecting homes and other structures from the 10 most serious of 21 fires burning in Volusia County west of the Daytona Beach-Ormond Beach tourist area.

"Fires are approaching developed areas all through the county," said emergency management spokesman Joe Wooden. "We've really got it bad."

Firefighters were pulled from other areas for duty in Volusia County. By noon Wednesday, 1,000 firefighters were at work there and in surrounding counties.

National Guard deployed

Satellite image
Satellite image of smoke from the Florida fires  

At least 700 members of the Florida National Guard also were called on to help. The Guard was using an infrared camera to map hot spots from the air, to help firefighters decide on the best strategies.

An appeal for more firefighters was sent out across the United States, and state officials hoped to have 1,000 additional firefighters in place by Thursday, said Greg Thayer, Florida's fire information officer.

Lt. Wayne Petrovich, a Florida fire marshal, warned it was impossible for the firefighters to extinguish all the flames.

"Only rain will do that," he said.

Meanwhile, Volusia County residents were asked to stay away from their homes if fires were burning toward them, but no mandatory evacuation was ordered on Wednesday, Wooden said. Only 17 people stayed in four shelters Tuesday night.

Florida Crop Damage:






More than 52,000 acres of woodlands, scrubs and dried-out swamplands have burned in Volusia, St. John's and Flagler counties. Statewide, lightning has been blamed for most of the fires.

The area has received only 3 inches of rain since April, about a foot less than expected, since June usually is the wettest month for much of Florida, Wooden said.

Fires burn across Florida

Across the state, 128 wildfires were burning Wednesday, Thayer said. He said 69 new fires started Tuesday.

An Ormond Beach resident sprays his home to help protect it from the spreading forest fires  

There was one bit of good news Wednesday from the Apalachicola National Forest south of Tallahassee, where fires were 100 percent contained for the first time since breaking out May 26, said forest spokesman Van Crump.

Firefighters from 20 states doused blazes covering nearly 16,000 acres, but almost 9,000 acres in the center of the forest continued to smolder.

"It's not under control. We just have it contained," Crump said. "With the unburned fuel in the middle, it still has a potential for escape given the adverse weather."

A lack of rain and unrelenting heat have made Florida dangerously dry, causing the most serious outbreak of fires in half a century. Since May 25, hundreds of fires have scorched at least 118,000 acres, burning in every county except Monroe, which includes the Florida Keys.

One person died of a heart attack during an evacuation, and at least 28 people have been injured since the wildfires started.

Correspondent Susan Candiotti and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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