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Weary Floridians pray for relief

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Diane Palmer-Pansullo has seen enough of hell lately. She went to church services Sunday for a glimpse of something better.

The Ormond Beach resident sat in the Peabody Auditorium and rocked silently, tears streaming from her eyes onto the head of her 6-month-old granddaughter. Fires drove her from her home Wednesday, and heavy smoke that has aggravated her asthma has kept her away."I can't take much more," she said, her voice breaking. "I needed God today of all days."

At makeshift churches around fire-weary northern Florida on Sunday, people clapped their hands and raised open palms heavenward. They clung to their Bibles and each other, giving thanks that no one has died and hoping and praying for an end to the firestorm that has eaten up 458,288 acres since Memorial Day.

"I see a lot of people cry," said a smiling Sam Haralampus, whose 1-year-old home in Palm Coast burned down June 6. "I lost a lot of valuable stuff. But that all can be replaced. That doesn't bother me. I keep smiling."

State officials estimate that nearly 2,000 fires have damaged or destroyed 222 homes and businesses and caused close to 100 injuries.

The total cost of fighting the fires has topped $110 million, and losses are estimated at $276 million. More than 100,000 people had been evacuated from their homes, although many were allowed to return this weekend.

Fire officials said the intensity of the blazes had decreased, but conditions can change quickly. Drier air and gusty winds could stir still-smoldering embers and ignite more flames.

"Yesterday, we lost some 25-30 homes (in Flagler County), but actually, we dodged a real bullet," Gov. Lawton Chiles said Sunday on CNN. "We were afraid yesterday morning that we literally could lose the whole county."

Fourth of July weekend travel was disrupted throughout the state, as travelers scrambled to find ways home around the fire-plagued region. Several of the major north-south arteries remain closed, including more than 100 miles of Interstate 95 from near Jacksonville to Cocoa Beach.

The damage has been concentrated in three counties along the Atlantic coast, from St. Augustine to near the Kennedy Space Center. Almost all of the residents of Brevard and Volusia counties have been allowed to return home, but the more than 40,000 people forced from Flagler County will have to wait at least until Monday.

"We still have a very unsafe situation. We are asking for one more day," said Craig Fugate, chief of preparedness and response for division of emergency management.

Haralampus wouldn't have a home to go back to even if he could return to Flagler County. He was one of more than 1,000 people who packed the auditorium in Daytona Beach on Sunday. The service was held there because the Riverbend Community Church in neighboring Ormond Beach was being used as a fire command center.

The service attracted people of all faiths - regular churchgoers and the less diligent. Some were dressed in their Sunday best. Haralampus, 67, came in shorts, sandals and a T-shirt - the best he had left.

The fire that destroyed his home sprang up so quickly that he had no time to even get his oxygen tanks and medicine. His wife, 65-year-old Betty, offered tough love for people who lost their possessions, reminding them that no one has been killed.

"If we can start over at our age, . . . these young people should stop their crying. They've got a future ahead of them," she said.

Standing beside a banner depicting Christ's hand reaching into the flames from heaven, the Rev. Roy Hargrave prayed for the kind of soaking rain that would help extinguish the slow-burning fires. The crowd responded with shouts of "yes" and "amen."

Temperatures were as high as 100 degrees Sunday, but some light showers fell, and more were predicted for early this week. Emergency officials say it will take more than 10 inches of rain to put out the fires, and it was unclear if a storm building in the Caribbean would head toward the area.

At First Baptist Church in DeLand, Education Minister Dave Cooper said victims should be thankful for the volunteers and firefighters who have come from all over to help save the area.

"God is calling people together to help us here," he said. "Out of all of this, I sense that God wants . . . to heal our land and our people."