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Nervous residents keep eye on 3 fires

As firefighters battled brush fires Thursday in Volusia and Flagler counties, the thick brown smoke, blowing ash and smell of burned trees served as an eerie reminder for local residents.
/ Source: News-Journal Online.com

As firefighters battled brush fires Thursday in Volusia and Flagler counties, the thick brown smoke, blowing ash and smell of burned trees served as an eerie reminder for local residents.

Some of them had lost their homes to the wildfires of 1998.

"You feel a sick ball in the pit of your stomach," said Tara Cromer, whose Palm Coast home was in the path of Thursday's largest brush fire.

The fire, which was ignited by a fallen power line, blazed through about 20 acres of the Seminole Woods subdivision and prompted the voluntary evacuation of about 80 homes on Ulaturn Trail.

Jarrod Gonzalez, whose home is on Uhl Path, said his family of four fled within 20 minutes, after packing insurance papers, photos and enough supplies to last a few days.

By then, the smoke had almost completely blocked the sun.

Northeast winds averaging 15 mph, with gusts reaching 22 mph, hampered firefighters.

"The wind was changing every five minutes," Flagler County Fire Rescue Chief Joseph Powell said. "It kept dancing in different directions."

The Flagler County Fireflight helicopter doused the flames with water retrieved from nearby lakes, while 50 fire rescue workers from four agencies helped on the ground.

Firefighters feared the strong winds would blow embers across Seminole Woods Boulevard. At 4:15 p.m., officials closed that road and began rerouting southbound traffic.

But by 6 p.m., the fire had been contained. Powell said he expected cleanup in the area to begin today.

Firefighters also battled two brush fires near Port Orange.

The first, on 14 acres of vacant land in an unincorporated area off Clyde Morris Boulevard, just south of Madeline Avenue, started about 2 a.m.

No residents were evacuated, although the fire crept within 400 yards of a home.

Officials were investigating whether that fire, the fifth in about a week on the same property, might have been intentionally set.

"It's in the middle of the woods, no thunderstorms, no lightning, nothing to start the fire," Volusia County Fire Spokesman Walter Nettles said at the scene. "They don't just start."

An investigator with the state's Department of Forestry is expected to visit the scene later today.

Another brush fire, reported at 4:47 p.m., destroyed 6 acres of forest in the Buttermilk Lane and Windsor Drive neighborhood, south of the first Port Orange blaze.

Port Orange Fire spokeswoman Lisa Saunders said fire officials believe the blaze "was definitely not started by natural causes.'

That fire came within 15 feet of mobile homes on Windsor Drive, Saunders said, but no residents were evacuated.

Firefighters were monitoring all three sites overnight and checking for "hot spots."

High winds and extremely low humidity -- at times only 26 percent -- prompted the National Weather Service to issue a Red Flag warning Thursday for all of east Central Florida. Such conditions are not unusual during April, the area's driest month of the year.

Many parts of the Southeast, including most of Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina, experienced less than 20 percent of the normal rainfall from October through March.

No rain is predicted in Central Florida this weekend, but a normal amount is expected over the next two months. More than half of Florida's total rain falls in June through September, said Jim Karels, assistant director the Division of Forestry in Tallahassee.

Bill Hodges, duty officer supervisor with the Department of Forestry in Bunnell, said the state's overall fire danger is no worse than any other year. But many Floridians remember that 1998 was not expected to be bad, either.

That year, 4,027 wildfires scorched 406,970 acres. Blazes in Flagler County destroyed 70 homes and forced 40,000 residents to flee.

Some residents Thursday complained that the wildfire threat has not been fully addressed.

"When the hell is this place going to start using common sense?" asked Ulmus Place resident Paul Sammartano, whose home burned to the ground during the 1998 fire.

"The trees should be cut down."

millie.lapidario@news-jrnl.com

Staff Writers Andrew Lyons and Patricio G. Balona, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.