Wildfires force evacuations in central Florida

By: AP
By: AP

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- Dry, windy weather fueled several wildfires on Florida's central Atlantic coast Monday, destroying at least three homes and driving hundreds of residents away as the governor declared a state of emergency.

The largest fire, a 3,000-acre blaze in Brevard County, destroyed at least two homes, including the house Butch Vanfleet built in 1980 and tried in vain to protect with a garden hose.

Vanfleet, 59, said the fire had reached the doorstep of the house in Malabar when he and his family fled Sunday evening. 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."

The Florida Highway Patrol shut down a 7-mile stretch of Interstate 95 in Brevard County around rush hour Monday. U.S. Highway 1 also was closed in that area, and it was not known when it will reopen, FHP spokeswoman Kim Miller said.

"The fires have picked up in Malabar so it's just heavy, thick black smoke and it's right at driver level," Miller said.

One person may be responsible for the 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.

In another fire in nearby Palm Bay, one home was destroyed and students at two schools were released early as a precaution.

To the north in Daytona Beach, about 800 acres had burned 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."

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

Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency Monday. The move allows Florida to use federal funds and the National Guard, brings local emergency workers under state control and allows Florida to call on other states for help.

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Associated Press Writers Jennifer Kay and Antonio Gonzalez in Miami contributed to this report.

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