The 1998 Wildfires in Central Florida: Volusia County's Own Armageddon

By Minshew, Paul; Towle, Jack | Journal of Environmental Health, March 1999 | Go to article overview

The 1998 Wildfires in Central Florida: Volusia County's Own Armageddon


Minshew, Paul, Towle, Jack, Journal of Environmental Health


Introduction

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. …

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