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Published: Monday, 5/12/2008

Wildfires force evacuations in central Florida

ASSOCIATED PRESS

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. Dry, windy weather fueled several wildfires on Florida's central Atlantic coast Monday, driving hundreds of residents from their homes as firefighters worked to contain the blazes and protect property.

Helicopters dropped water on a fire that had burned about 800 acres in Daytona Beach by Monday afternoon, said Division of Forestry spokesman Timber Weller.

Authorities ordered about 500 homes in the northwest part of the city to be evacuated. No homes were reported damaged, though officials warned that embers could fly more than a mile from the blaze. A 5-mile stretch of road through Daytona Beach was shut down because the fire was too close.

Ray Ademski, 68, left his home with his wife and their important papers when he saw columns of smoke Sunday night around their subdivision. He hosed down the roof and turned on the sprinklers in his yard before heading off to a hotel.

"I could feel the heat from both sides," said Ademski, who returned by bicycle Monday to survey the damage. "The smoke was going straight into my eyes. It was terrible."

By Monday, the skyline was free of the thick smoke that filled it the previous night, but firefighters were wary of flare-ups in the smoldering embers.

The fire was about 20 percent contained, but firefighters' efforts would be challenged by high winds, Weller said.

"The weather conditions are ripe for extreme fire behavior," Weller said. "What we're looking at is fairly typical for this time of year in Florida, coming into the end of the dry season."

In neighboring Brevard County, a wildfire that grew to 3,000 acres destroyed at least one home and threatened 60 others, forestry officials said. No injuries were reported.

Butch Vanfleet, 59, tried to knock back the massive fire with a garden hose before flames engulfed his home in Malabar. Vanfleet said he built the house in 1980, and his 26-year-old son and wife were inside Sunday evening when the fire came to their doorstep. All that stood Monday was the chimney and a stone wall.

Vanfleet said he will rebuild.

"It's devastation," he said. "All you see is nothing but ash in between the palm trees and the palmetto. There's no grass. The fire just came so quickly, we barely got out of there."

One person may be responsible for the Brevard County blaze, said Ernie Dieble, an arson investigator with the Palm Bay Police Department.

An eyewitness saw someone in a car drop something into an open field, and the fire started shortly afterward, he said.

Firefighters also contained two smaller blazes near Cocoa that damaged four homes and two commercial structures, officials said.



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