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Sea breezes, misting rain help calm Florida fires

SHARE Sea breezes, misting rain help calm Florida fires

A day of fire and chaotic mass evacuations that emptied out an entire county in northeast Florida ended in a calm evening Friday, as the ocean rescued the land, spreading gentle sea breezes and misting rain over a hostile crown of flames.

"We're still losing structures; we still have people in jeopardy. But it's not nearly as bad as we thought," said Ray Geiger, chief of field operations at Florida division of forestry. "These breezes have turned (the fires) around. That calms the head of the fire. The humidity went up, too. So we're doing OK."At midday Friday, in dazed slow motion, long lines of traffic crept down smoky, heat-shimmering two-lane highways thread-ing south and east out of Bunnell, as all of Flagler County was ordered evacuated Friday un-der the threat of multiple fires to the north, west and south.

About 30,000 people took to their cars and fled, carrying rugs, computers, pets and papers. It was the first time in Florida's current spate of wildfires that an entire county was ordered emptied out.

"We have a potential for a catastrophic event. That's why the county is being evacuated," warned Geiger. "We have to be prepared to fall back to a safe zone. There's a potential firestorm."

The mass evacuation of Flagler brought to 70,000 the total number of people who had evacuated their homes by Friday, fleeing 1,904 fires covering 321,000 acres across the state. Wildfires moving at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour probed and feinted towards subdivisions surrounded by beautiful green pinewoods that were suddenly a deadly liability.

But the greatest peril seemed to hover around Bunnell. Three separate fires threatened to converge on the town and helicopters were frantically dumping thousands of gallons of water in the path of the blazes. By nightfall, the three fires had been held at bay. A dusk-to-dawn curfew was in force.

At least four homes burned down in the Palm Coast neighborhood in Flagler County. But the situation improved somewhat in Brevard and Volusia counties, where fires were stopped short of neighborhoods.

Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles called up another 1,500 National Guard troops Friday and announced that two-thirds of all the heavy fire-fighting helicopters in the entire country were now in Florida, fighting the fires. In addition, two C-141 Starlifter transport aircraft from McCord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Wash., had been summoned to Florida.

"It doesn't look like we're going to get any relief any time soon," said Chiles. But the governor announced that 400 extra state police would patrol evacuated neighborhoods, to guard against looting.

As firefighters jumped on one new blaze after another up and down the northeast Florida coast, displaced evacuees slept with relatives, in hotel rooms, and on olive drab military cots in shelters, wondering what they would go home to, when they went home again.

"You think it could never happen to you. I'm here to tell you, it can happen to you. It's quite scary," said Ormond Beach city commissioner Carl Persis, an elementary school principal who had to leave his home Wednesday.

Heedless of official pleas to conserve water, panicked homeowners hooked up sprinklers on their roofs, turned on lawn sprinklers and fled, leaving the water spewing full blast over their endangered property.