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One Step Ahead of Florida's Record Flames

After withstanding a month of wildfires, Floridians put hope in a downpour this week.

When the fire came, Dean VanderBleek was on the roof of his house adjusting a lawn sprinkler to keep his shingles wet.

Suddenly the sky to the west was all orange and black with thick smoke rolling in. "It was a wall of flames, probably 40 feet high, that was moving faster than you could run - probably 20 or 25 miles per hour," he says.

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Mr. VanderBleek did run. He gathered his two children into the car and started driving across his wooded property. As they fled, his son saw a column of smoke rising from the forest near the house. "Daddy, that's not supposed to be there," the boy said.

VanderBleek knew he had only moments before the firestorm would arrive, but something told him to stop the car. He sprinted to the house, grabbed two buckets of water and, despite tripping once, somehow managed to douse the 10-foot-high flames before driving his children to safety.

What's amazing about VanderBleek's story isn't that the family escaped unhurt. It's that he's telling it from his property, still wooded, but bordered now on two sides by a charred and smoldering wasteland.

The Florida fires of 1998 have forced more evacuations than any US wildfire in recent history and caused some $275 million in damages so far - including the loss of at least 150 Florida homes. But tens of thousands of other homes - like the VanderBleek homestead - have been protected.

"God and the firefighters should take credit for what happened here," VanderBleek says, noting that the fire came so fast here on the Volusia-Brevard county line that authorities had no time to issue an evacuation order. He is certain, too, that his split-second decision to douse the flare-up, caused by an ember falling from the sky, helped save his home.

After weeks of fire fighting, emergency officials and many Floridians see the beginnings of a success story emerging. There have been no deaths directly related to the fires, and favorable weather conditions are finally allowing firefighters to bring some blazes under control. The vast majority of evacuees are returning home to find their houses and property intact. And emergency officials hope that a tropical weather system in the Caribbean will be drawn to northeast Florida this week and produce a soaking rain. If it does, the showers will answer the prayers of millions who heeded Gov. Lawton Chiles's appeal last week to pray for rain.

Moreover, emergency managers in Florida have assembled the largest, best-equipped firefighting army in the nation's history. More than 5,000 firefighters from 41 states and the federal government are now working on the firelines. Two-thirds of the firefighting helicopters and airplanes in the US are either working in Florida or are on their way here. Practically every spare bulldozer in the southeastern corner of the US is already here. Fresh volunteers are arriving daily to relieve firefighters who have endured near 100-degree heat and high humidity battling the blazes for the past month.

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With more than a half-million acres destroyed, Florida's fires of the summer of 1998 forced more than 100,000 residents from their homes, including Friday's evacuation of the entire population of Flagler County (about 40,000). The most dangerous fires are in northeast Florida, extending through a tinder-dry region just south of St. Augustine to Titusville. But wildfire conditions continue throughout most of the state, and an eerie veil of smoke extends down Florida's east coast as far as Miami.

The fires in the northeast closed a long section of Interstate 95 since last Thursday, disrupting July 4 travel plans. They caused a ban on Fourth of July fireworks displays in drought-affected sections and triggered the cancellation until October of the Pepsi 400 stock car race at the Daytona International Speedway.

Emergency officials caution that even a slight change in wind direction could spark a string of new, dangerous fires. Dry conditions and fast-burning fires have many seasoned firefighters awed by the explosiveness of the blazes.

Firefighters' biggest concern is preventing the kind of firestorm VanderBleek faced. With even a little wind from the west, the flames can whip up burning embers and spread them as far as a quarter-mile. As the intensity of the fire increases, it generates an inward rush of wind that can transform the blaze into a self-perpetuating fire machine, a kind of rolling blow torch.

"These are the most unusual fire conditions I've seen in 25 years of firefighting," says Rich Wiederhold, a district chief with Brevard County Fire Rescue. "There is an expression in the firefighting business: 'See you at the big one.' This is the big one."

Because of the wildfires' explosive nature, officials report that in some instances firefighters have had to drop their hoses and literally run for their lives. In other cases, firefighters called for air support and were quickly aided by helicopters with water buckets or water tanker planes capable of dropping 250,000 gallons of a slimy, flame-dousing mixture of water and fertilizer.

John Calandros, a firefighter from Bartow, Fla., says his crew was caught by a sudden flare-up. "We've never been around anything like that," he says of the fiery explosion. The unit "called for an air strike," and within minutes, helicopters hit the fire hard, enabling those on the ground to hold their position.

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