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The 1998 wildfires in Central Florida: Volusia County's own Armageddon.


The wildfires that torched vast areas of Florida during June and early July of 1998 were one of the greatest environmental disasters ever to strike the Sunshine State. Only massive Category 4 or Category 5 hurricanes (such as Hurricane Andrew in 1992) have caused as much economic and environmental damage. For a one-month period, while the fires burned largely out of control, a heavy blanket of smoke and smog engulfed huge areas of the state. Particularly hard hit were the communities along the 1-95 corridor between Cocoa Beach and St. Augustine. At the center of the disaster were the eastern cities and towns of Volusia County. As the fires intensified in June, thick smoke obscured the sun, even in the middle of the day. People with pre-existing lung and heart conditions, including young children with asthma, found it increasingly difficult to breathe. At first requiring the services primarily of firefighters, public works personnel, and the police, this disaster suddenly became a public health threat that summoned the expertise of medical and environmental health staff. As the fires intensified, so did the role played by the Volusia County environmental health staff.

Volusla County's Own Armageddon - A Time Line of Events

While movie patrons enjoyed the opening of the movie Armageddon in theaters everywhere, a Volusia County theater was evacuated, and patrons got to experience first hand east central Florida's own version of Armageddon - wildfires.

The central Florida wildfires of 1998 began in the first week of June with the Flagler Estates fire in south St. John's County. The fires then spread to Brevard, Flagler, Putnum, Seminole, Orange, and Volusia counties, where they were battled for the next month. East central Florida was experiencing drought conditions, and the danger level for fire was high. Lightning strikes started most of the fires, but some fires were determined to have been set by arsonists.

On June 14, 1998, in the second week of the fires, Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford ordered Florida's Division of Forestry to go to a Readiness Level 4 (second most serious level). The weather conditions were not improving, and the potential for the fires to spread was increasing. At this point, 54 homes had burned in the wildfires. Five hundred firefighters and support personnel were involved in containing the fires. The fight was now being conducted from above with three fixed-wing, single-engine air tankers and three helicopters.

On Friday June 19, lightning sparked fires that forced the closing of parts of 1-95, a main north-south transportation route.

On Saturday June 20, 35 more wildfires broke out and forced the closing of U.S. 92, a main east-west transportation mute. Aircraft fighting the fires from above had to stop operating out of the DeLand airport because of smoke blowing into the area.

During the week of June 21, 10 active fires were battled in Volusia County. On Sunday, 18,000 acres were burned or burning. Between 200 and 300 homes were threatened. None of the major fires were under control.

On Monday June 22, 30,000 acres of land were burned or burning, and 350 to 400 homes were threatened. Voluntary evacuations were initiated for homes in the Plantation Pines area of Ormond Beach. One hundred firefighters from throughout the state were expected to arrive to help local firefighters. The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) declared Flagler, St. John's, and Volusia Counties eligible for fire fighting aid. The health department received many phone calls from individuals complaining of respiratory-related problems caused by heavy smoke. After consultations with area emergency rooms, the health department issued a public health alert: Individuals with pre-existing lung or heart conditions should avoid the outdoor air in the vicinity of the fires. At that time, fires were burning in the center of Volusia County on a 40-mile front. More fires were burning north through Flagler County (35 miles) and south into Brevard County to the City of Titusville (20 miles), so the warning affected a large population. As long as heavy smoke remained in central Florida (another two to three weeks), the alert was in effect.

By Tuesday June 23, so many fires were burning that it was impossible to successfully initiate attacks on all of them. Also, the fires were beginning to converge. One fire covered more than 20,000 acres. Operations concentrated on saving structures. Because fires had broken out everywhere in Florida, resources were spread thin. Competition for personnel and equipment was a factor. The Volusia County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) reported that 22 fires were being fought in Volusia County. Forty-seven firefighters from other parts of Florida arrived to help combat the blazes. As field conditions changed, priorities shifted from protecting property to protecting life.

Seven active fires were being fought in Volusia County on Wednesday June 24. Fifty thousand acres were burned or burning. Some of the fires threatened the Daytona Beach well fields, and 774 homes were threatened. So far no homes had been destroyed in Volusia County.

On Thursday June 25, the number of fires increased to 64. Approximately 60,000 acres in Volusia County were burned or burning. Mutual aid began to arrive from throughout the United States. A D6 bulldozer, a transport tractor, a service truck, two 2-ton trucks, and eight humvees were on the scene from the Florida Department of Transportation, the State Fire Marshall's Office, and the Florida National Guard. Governor Lawton Chiles banned the sale and possession of fireworks statewide.

Friday June 26 brought some relief in the form of rain. With that rain, however, came thunderstorms and multiple lightning strikes. In Volusia County, more than 70,000 acres were burned or burning. Fire services reported that the over-all situation was somewhat stabilized. The Plantation Pines subdivision was successfully defended.

Saturday June 27 found several agencies beginning mop-up operations. All fires were reported contained within fire lines, but 80,000 acres were burned or burning. Although the fires appeared to be under control, fire breakout was still possible if wind and weather conditions changed.

On Sunday June 28, residents faced a new week with the hope that life could return to normal. All fires were reported under control. All areas had been cleared, and evacuated residents were allowed to return to their homes. The Feds arrived with their Federal Incident Command (Blue Team) consisting of five "hot shot" teams. They brought with them a Type 1 helicopter, two Type 2 helicopters, and one tactical aerial-reconnaissance aircraft. The Salvation Army planned to feed all field workers.

On Monday June 29, fire officials called for the voluntary evacuation of approximately 200 homes in the Lake Harney Woods area because a wildfire had flared up out of Brevard County. Vice President Al Gore visited the area and announced that FEMA had approved $35 million in fire suppression grants for Florida. The fire station on Tiger Bay Road was a "Hall of Heroes," according to Vice President Gore.

Officials met on Tuesday June 30 to discuss concerns about traffic connected with the upcoming NASCAR race. Because of smoke, which was everywhere, visibility was poor. The cost of fighting the fires was estimated at $155,000 per day, excluding statewide mutual aid and additional expenditures from municipalities. The federal government declared Volusia County a disaster area. At that point, over 100,000 acres (156 square miles) had burned in Volusia and Flagler counties.

On Wednesday July 1, more fires broke out as increasing winds picked up embers from old fires and started new ones. A Flagler County fire had entered Volusia County and had necessitated the evacuation of about 20,000 people. Ormond Beach was threatened, and all roads into the city were closed except A1A. Approximately one-third of the city was forced to evacuate; 15,000 people were affected. Some residents who were trapped by fire and had no other means of escape were evacuated in the county sheriff's helicopter. For those who could go home from work, the drive was surreal. The sky was painted with an eerie orange-hued glow. Smoke permeated everything, affecting visibility and health. Stories were heard of citizens waking from a sound sleep choking because of smoke in their homes. Ten areas in the cities of Daytona and Ormond Beach were under mandatory evacuation orders. The Emory L. Bennett Veterans Nursing Home was in the line of the sweeping fires and had to evacuate 300 patients. By 11 p.m., 1-95 was closed from Jacksonville to Titusville, a distance of 135 miles.

By Thursday July 2, fires had forced the evacuation of 40,000 people. Winds at speeds of 20 miles per hour were blowing embers half a mile in front of the main fire line. The fires in Daytona Beach traveled 10 miles in four hours. The first-ever nighttime Pepsi 400 NASCAR race - which was sold out - was postponed until October 17, 1998. It was the first time a 400 race had been postponed for any reason since NASCAR had started racing in 1959.

On Friday July 3, the high winds continued, threatening the communities of Bunnell, Palm Coast, and Ormond Beach. The fires had now consumed 120,000 acres. Volusia County had lost only 12 homes (10 manufactured) and four businesses. Flagler County, not as fortunate, had lost 40 homes. All of Flagler County was under a mandatory evacuation order. Officials feared that the major fires in northern Palm Coast, north of Bunnell and south of Bunnell, would merge to create an unstoppable firewall marching east towards the coast.

Saturday July 4 was not a day of celebrations. All firework displays were canceled. Weather conditions had eased: The winds were subsiding, and rain was predicted. The wildfires were brought under control. A well water advisory was issued for residents on wells who had lost power. July 4 also was the day we had no bandanas - that's right, bandanas. Firefighters had put in a request for bandanas to cover their faces to ease the effects of smoke. The media heard about the request and put out an appeal for donations. The only problem was that they said bananas, not bandanas. Firefighters were inundated with bananas. It is a funny story, but it showcases the generosity of citizens and business communities, as well as the importance of clear, verified public-service communication. We thank all the people throughout the United States who generously made donations. The response was overwhelming and we are grateful, most especially to the firefighters themselves.

Sunday July 5 began a new week with renewed hope. Light rains were predicted, which would increase humidity, which, in turn, would decrease the chance of flare-ups. People were allowed to return to their homes. In Volusia County, 121,000 acres had burned.

On Monday July 6, the mandatory evacuation order was lifted in Flagler County. Florida Emergency Management, of the Florida Division of Forestry, released its Situation Report Number 41. In the state of Florida, 474,462 acres had burned. All 67 counties had been affected. More than 301 homes had been destroyed and more than 33 businesses. A press release addressed the safety both of food and of drinking-water supplies for residents returning to homes from which they had evacuated. The press release cautioned the public about food and water contamination that might have occurred as a result of extended electrical-power outages. Environmental health staff answered many phone calls about food hygiene issues.

By Tuesday July 7, the fires had been contained. Mop-up operations were beginning. Volusia County released preliminary financial-loss figures: $1.9 million to commercial and residential structures, approximately $60 to $70 million in timber. All roads were now open, and no areas were under evacuation notice. Volunteers and donated supplies were no longer needed for firefighting efforts in Volusia County

On Wednesday July 8, Flagler County released its financial-loss estimates. Fifty-one homes had been destroyed, and 175 had been damaged. The total cost for replacement and repair was $6.3 million.

On Thursday July 9, President Bill Clinton arrived to thank the firefighters who had come from all parts of the United States to battle the fires. Referring to the movie mentioned at the beginning of this article, he said, "It's important that every American know that the real American heroes are not up in space fighting asteroids, but in Florida, fighting fires."

On Monday July 13, the Volusia County emergency operations staff were calculating the cost of the wildfires and thinking about ways to prevent them from happening again. Volusia County was now in recovery and mitigation, the final phase of the wildfire battle. Out-of-town firefighters had been demobilized and sent home with our gratitude. Volusia fire crews were back on normal rotation.

The Volusia County EOC returned to Level 2 readiness on Tuesday July 14. Level 2 involves being alert and monitoring - that is, a return to normal operations. At that time of year, the EOC is normally on alert for hurricanes.

Environmental Health Response

On June 20, 1998, the Volusia County EOC summoned staff from the health department to the command center. Environmental health staff are on the EOC emergency-response call-down list. Usually, a call is initiated because of a hurricane, tropical storm, or tornado. This time the call from the EOC operator was different: "Lightning started at least 100 wildfires last night, the fires are burning out of control, and the county has activated the EOC. We need someone here to represent ESF 8 [emergency support function for health and medical]." Within an hour, an environmental manager from the health department entered the white bunker that served as the command center for Volusia County's disaster response. An orange light glowed in the hazy gray sky, and large particles of ash fell from the clouds like snow - evidence that the fires were nearby A few minutes after he took his seat in the energized "war room," the environmental manager was joined by the director of the health department for the first of many fire status briefings. The news was not good. At least 35 huge fires were burning, some within 2 miles of the EOC. The previous three months had produced record heat and little rain; throughout the county, forests were ready to ignite like tinderboxes. Deputy Fire Chief Jim Mauney said, "People, it's dangerous out there. The conditions are twice as bad as they were on Black Friday in 1985 when we had over 130 homes burn in Flagler County Be prepared to spend a lot of time here over the next several weeks." His words proved to be prophetic; conditions in Volusia and Flagler continued to deteriorate. Environmental Health staff worked side by side with firefighters, nurses, and law enforcement personnel at the EOC and performed numerous community assessments before the smoke finally cleared four weeks later. Environmental health issues included the following main areas of concern:

* health issues for people with chronic lung or heart problems related to high levels of smoke in the air (an epidemiological surveillance study was conducted to determine if the extreme amount of smoke in the air caused a significant increase in the number of individuals who were treated in emergency rooms or admitted to the hospital for selected lung, heart, or upper respiratory problems);

* food safety issues at mass feeding sites for firefighters and evacuees;

* health and safety concerns at evacuee shelters;

* sanitary status of potable drinking-water systems and bottled-water supplies; and

* mosquito control after the fires.


Air Pollution Issues

The effects of the smoke on individuals who had pre-existing lung or heart conditions significantly increased emergency room visits over the number of visits made during the same time frame in 1997. A surveillance study conducted by Regional Epidemiologist Zuber D. Mulla, Volusia County Health Department Director Bonita Sorensen, M.D., and Volusia County Epidemiology Program Nurse Marie Fuss, R.N., indicated that certain respiratory-illness symptoms increased during this time frame. Table 1 presents the frequencies with which seven conditions occurred in 1997 and 1998. The comparison indicates that these conditions may have been aggravated in 1998 by excess smoke in the air.

Drinking Water

Environmental health staff conducted field surveys and obtained samples from the water supplies in the areas affected by fires. Fortunately, none of the major utilities lost pressure in their distribution systems, despite the increase in demand associated with firefighting activities. Power outages did affect some smaller water utilities and numerous private wells. A "boil water" notice was issued to affected areas in Ormond Beach and Flagler County Bottled water was supplied to residents and firefighters in those areas until the wells had been disinfected, properly flushed, and cleared through bacteriological analysis.

Food Safety Issues

The mass feeding of over 1,300 firefighters, as well as of the thousands of people forced to evacuate their homes in Volusia and Flagler Counties, posed a special concern for environmental health staff. Most food service operations were set up in previously approved kitchens located at the Daytona Speedway, the Ocean Center, Hooligans Pub (a local eatery), and the Salvation Army. In addition, FEMA brought in temporary mobile kitchens under contract and set them up at major staging areas such as the Flagler and Volusia County fairgrounds. Finally the American Red Cross brought in at least six mobile food vans to deliver hot and cold meals to the "front lines." In both counties, environmental health staff conducted inspections at all known food preparation and feeding areas. Problems included use of a nonpotable water supply and outside storage of packaged foods at the Flagler fairgrounds, flies at the Volusia fairgrounds, and, at several locations, foods stored slightly above the maximum temperature requirement of 41 [degrees] F The food managers quickly corrected the violations.

Health and Safety Issues at Shelters

Evacuees and firefighters were sheltered in permanent buildings at schools, churches, and the fairgrounds. The American Red Cross, health department nurses, and hundreds of volunteers staffed these shelters and cared for people with special needs. An outpouring of community donations ensured that the shelter residents received cots, blankets, nonperishable foods, and drinks. Hot and cold meals were prepared and delivered to the shelters by the Salvation Army All the shelters had existing sanitary facilities, and some set up portable facilities to augment the number of toilets. Environmental health staff inspected the food service at some of the shelters and would have responded to public health complaints had there been any.

Mosquito Control

Firebreaks were one of the most important fire control measures employed by the firefighters. Bulldozers and other heavy equipment cut large paths through woods and wet-lands, removing brush and trees from the path of a wildfire in an attempt to deny it the fuel it would need to continue in a particular direction. Most of these firebreaks were cut around subdivisions or along major roads for the purpose of saving personal property. This strategy was very effective in stopping the fires, but unfortunately created 70 miles of deep ruts that held water once the typical summer rains returned. Deep, water-filled ruts provided an ideal breeding location for woodland floodwater mosquitoes. According to Volusia County Mosquito Control, record numbers of these mosquitoes emerged in August and September to terrorize the same people who, just two months previously, had been terrorized by the wildfires. The same mosquito control personnel who had spent hundreds of hours in June and July assisting the firefighters in cutting firebreaks now used their heavy equipment to eliminate as many of the ruts as possible. At times, the task seemed overwhelming: As they worked, large logging trucks were using the firebreaks to access salvage wood from the burnt areas and were creating new breeding areas every day. Fortunately, from a public health standpoint, the mosquito species that had been breeding in the muddy ruts were not major vectors of disease. Environmental health staff continued, however, to monitor these areas for encephalitis.

Acknowledgements: We wish to recognize Cindy Finney, Volusia County Web Administrator for the information provided by the excellent website <>. We also acknowledge Anita Cholmondeley, Flagler County Environmental Health Director for the information provided in Flagler County's after action fire report.

Corresponding Author: Jack R. Towle, R.S., M.PA., Environmental Manager, State of Florida, Volusia County, Environmental Health Laboratory, 1250 Indian Lake Rd., Daytona Beach, FL 32124-1038.
COPYRIGHT 1999 National Environmental Health Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Towle, Jack
Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Mar 1, 1999
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