At least 80 homes and other buildings were burned overnight, 35,000 people were evacuated, and as temperatures soared, the fires ravaging two counties were only expected to get bigger.
More than 125 miles of I-95 - the major East Coast artery - was closed from Jacksonville south to Titusville, near Cape Canaveral. The closed roads, the thick smoke and the threat of encroaching fires forced postponement of the first night NASCAR race at Daytona International Speedway."The results of napalm, that's what it looks like out there," said Jerry Lefreniere, who was forced to flee his home in Mims. Napalm is jellied gasoline, used extensively during the Vietnam war.
"I think Mother Nature has turned the barbecue up high," Lefreniere added. "It's really cooked out here."
Temperatures above 100 were forecast. "Mother Nature is not cooperating. We're expecting gusts of wind up to 20 mph throughout the day. Things will get worse as the day progresses," said Joe Wooden, a spokesman for Volusia County Emergency Management.
In Brevard County, just south of Volusia on Florida's east coast, Fire Chief Mark Francesconi said firefighters did not have enough equipment and help to keep the blazes away from homes. He said he did not think fires could be stopped before they reached the Indian River to the southeast.
"This is ugly," Francesconi said. "There are houses burning right now. They're very short of resources."
The wind-whipped fires jumped State Road 46 in three places just before noon Thursday, threatening two trailer parks and more than 300 homes as it moved southeast toward I-95. Footlong pieces of ash dropped from the sky.
Farther south, police in Titusville were telling the city's 40,000 residents to be ready for the worst.
"If it jumps (I-95), we're going to evacuate Titusville," police Capt. Steve Bridges said. "It'll be like Ormond Beach, maybe worse."
Officials were trying to tally the number of buildings destroyed. In Volusia, the early count was at least 10 homes and as many as 20 businesses. In Brevard, about 50 homes were destroyed along with many businesses.
"This is the worst fire situation we've ever had," said Gov. Lawton Chiles, who was touring fire areas. "We're having 90 to 100 new fires every day."
Since Memorial Day, more than 1,900 fires have burned more than 280,000 acres - an area of more than 425 square miles. The fires have damaged or destroyed at least 96 homes and 57 other structures in that time. In an average year, Florida fires burn 112,000 acres.
Chiles canceled a 10-day vacation in North Carolina because of the crisis.
The state's seemingly never-ending battle against the fires heated up Wednesday when blazes jumped firebreaks and seemed immune to an aerial water assault. Flames injured at least five firefighters in Brevard County - three of whom suffered second-degree burns.
Beth Wright grabbed her 5-year-old son, Evan, and raced out of her home in Holly Hill near Daytona Beach at 2 a.m. "It smelled like I was living in a barbecue," she said.
As the sun came up, fires were torching homes as firefighters rushed to keep up with the hot spots.
"This area has been menaced by hurricanes. This is probably the first time in Volusia County history that we've had this kind of an evacuation during a fire," said Len Ciecieznski, a county emergency spokesman.