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Florida evacuees return home

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David and Martha Stump braced for the worst when they fled their four-bedroom home as flames moved closer to their wooded neighborhood.

So when they returned on Monday, after a three-day evacuation of Flagler County was lifted, they weren't surprised to find their house leveled to a pile of ashes scattered among the burned and twisted metal of their freezer, refrigerator and washer. A birdbath adorned with a praying figurine was the only thing left standing in their scorched yard."We figured when we left because the fire was so close that it would be gone," said Martha Stump, 65, as she and her 71-year-old husband took pictures of the charred property.

The Stumps were among the unluckiest of the more than 40,000 Flagler County residents. Most found woods and fields charred but their homes unscathed.

Now the weather seems to be cooperating. Rain began falling in central Florida on Monday, and more showers and thunderstorms were possible Tuesday and Wednesday.

"If the weather and conditions are today like they were (Monday), I don't see any problem," Flagler County spokesman Rich Wieser said Tuesday. "But the weather is unpredictable; the fires are unpredictable."

All of Flagler County was evacuated Friday for fear that four fires would merge and burn all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. By Monday, firefighters had contained the blazes, though the threat of flare-ups remained.

Tuesday morning, Gov. Lawton Chiles visited burned areas of central Florida to thank firefighters, volunteers and emergency management officials for their efforts.

Other parts of Florida weren't faring so well. Forestry officials turned their attention to Bay County in the Panhandle, where three fires caused by lightning strikes had burned together into a 600-acre blaze. In Collier County, fire destroyed a home. A new fire also was reported in the Ocala National Forest in north central Florida.

About 97 percent of the homes in Flagler County escaped the fires, Sheriff Robert McCarthy said. At least 46 homes were destroyed, 179 were damaged and 49,000 acres of land was scorched.

The most heavily damaged areas, in the Matanzas Woods and Indian Trails parts of Palm Coast, looked like war zones with burned-out homes, scorched yards and not a green tree in sight. At the Matanzas Woods Golf Club, trees were blackened and the fairways burned.

Hugh and Geraldine Conklin's house was the only one destroyed in their Palm Coast neighborhood. "I cried a lot last night and a little bit this morning," Geraldine Conklin said. "I'll probably cry some more."

Some who returned to find their homes still standing were disappointed that the lush greenery of palmettos and pines that had attracted them to Flagler County were gone. Some also found that their neighborhoods had been plowed by firefighters using bulldozers to create fire breaks.

John Ostorch of Palm Coast had intended to put his house on the market last week because of a job-related move to Pennsylvania. He had recently spent $15,000 on landscaping, all of which was destroyed by fire.

"How am I going to sell my house? What am I supposed to do?" he asked.

Statewide, more than 2,000 fires have damaged or destroyed more than 300 homes and other structures and injured more than 100 people, many of them firefighters. Only one death has been reported, that of an elderly man who suffered a heart attack Friday while being moved from a nursing home.

The total cost of fighting the fires has topped $116 million, and losses have been estimated at $276 million.

President Clinton plans to visit the area on Thursday.