112,000 Flee Coast Flagler Empties; Firefighters Regroup as Nation Rushes in Aid County's Evacuation Unprecedented

By Roman, Dave | The Florida Times Union, July 4, 1998 | Go to article overview

112,000 Flee Coast Flagler Empties; Firefighters Regroup as Nation Rushes in Aid County's Evacuation Unprecedented


Roman, Dave, The Florida Times Union


Emergency officials ordered an unprecedented mandatory

evacuation yesterday that sent 40,000 Flagler County residents

scrambling for refuge in surrounding counties as three raging

fires threatened to converge into a massive, uncontrollable

firestorm.

State officials said it's the first time ever that an entire

Florida county was ordered evacuated because of fire.

Officials issued the evacuation order after U.S. forestry

officials warned that continued strong winds were creating

conditions likely to merge the fires into a wall of flames that

could burn through the county all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

Officials feared for much of yesterday that the fire might

force fire and emergency personnel to abandon the county, said

George Hanns, vice chairman of the Flagler County Commission.

"The fires are raging out of control. If all those fires merge

today, there is going to be a wall of fire that will be

absolutely uncontrollable," Hanns said.

"They're telling us we could have a catastrophic event,"

Flagler County Commissioner Sam Trivett said.

By noon yesterday, officials estimated that 50 percent of the

coastal county's residents had abandoned their homes and

possessions and fled. Officials said their top priority was to

avoid loss of life.

The order, issued about 9:45 a.m., sent fire-weary residents in

search of exit routes through thick smoke and ash that hung over

the county.

Gene Massey of Palm Harbor was at Flagler Palm Coast High

School with hundreds of other people, waiting for word on their

homes, when officials came to the school and announced they were

evacuating the entire county.

"Everyone was in shock," Massey said from his vehicle at the

Putnam-Flagler county border. "Our jaws dropped. . . We've been

waiting to go back to our homes. We thought they had the fires

contained."

Residents fleeing west were sent to Florida 100, where police

directed traffic into Putnam County, which sent some evacuees to

shelters in Alachua County and Gainesville.

As residents passed through Bunnell, they were greeted by U.S.

flags lining both sides of the road in celebration of the July

Fourth holiday. Strong winds that kept the flags straight fueled

fires burning on three sides of the town.

Cars lined up 20 deep at a filling station on Florida 100 as

motorists waited to buy enough gasoline to get them to safety.

The western evacuation route was cut off about 2:30 p.m. when a

fire jumped Florida 100 at the Putnam-Flagler line and burned on

both sides of the road, forcing evacuees to take other routes.

Evacuation routes for northbound and southbound traffic were

set up on Florida A1A, and traffic was heavy. Panicky motorists

heading north turned the two-lane highway into four lanes.

Northbound motorists in St. Johns County encountered a major

traffic tie-up at the spot of an uncontrollable fire off Florida

206 yesterday.

In Flagler, officials evacuated hospitals, nursing homes and

assisted living facilities and sent patients to facilities in

Alachua County that could handle their special needs.

The American Red Cross opened a welcome center with food and

snacks in Palatka, and also opened shelters at three high

schools in Orlando and at Clay High School. Another was being

set up at Hartley School in St. Johns County. Two Duval County

school sites were on standby.

Officials moved the Flagler emergency operations center from

Bunnell to an annex on Florida 100 after fire threatened the

sheriff's office, communications center and county jail Thursday

night as flames burned up to the steps of the jail. …

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