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Florida fights fire with fire

Firemen battle heat, smoke, exhaustion and fires  
June 25, 1998
Web posted at: 8:30 a.m. EDT (1230 GMT)

VOLUSIA COUNTY, Florida (CNN) -- Florida may fight fire with fire -- literally. If winds calm down Thursday, firefighters plan to drop dozens of pingpong balls filled with chemicals to create small fires when they hit. The idea is to burn out scrub brush and grass that can fuel larger fires.

On the ground, firefighters Wednesday struggled to contain wildfires threatening homes in densely wooded areas of Volusia County in east-central Florida. Flames were jumping from tree to tree and coming as close as a mile from some homes.

Hundreds of residents in Ormond Beach, DeLand and Port Orange asked to leave their homes voluntarily have declined.

Fires in Volusia County, Florida
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'A lot of wackos'

While lightning is blamed for most of the hundreds of fires that have broken out in hot, dry Florida since late May, officials suspect arson may be to blame for some Volusia County blazes, 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.

fire truck
A firetruck enters a troubled area of Volusia County  

'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.

  Latest government weather satellite photos showing smoke and hot spots in Florida (Scroll to current date)

National Guard deployed

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.

A forest in Volusia County  

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.

Apalachicola fire contained

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

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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