SUMMER OF FIRE: Worst of nature, best of people
As a wildfire raced toward them on the morning of July 1, 1998, Ernie Wheaton and a couple of his employees used a garden hose to spray down the roof of his father’s home west of Ormond Beach. At the urging of firefighters, they were preparing to evacuate.
Suddenly, “Fire rushed along the tree tops of the pine trees, past us like a storm," Ernie Wheaton recounted recently. "I can’t even describe it. It just goes by and a minute or so later everything crackles and now everything is on fire.”
They made it out alive, and firefighters saved the home and barn. But a few hours later, as the younger Wheaton settled his father, Ernest Sr., into his church where they were sheltering, a family friend called with bad news: The Wheatons' Ormond Beach family business, W.W. Truss Co., started by Ernest Sr. in 1978, was in flames.
“I drove over to the truss plant and watched the rest of it burn down,” Ernie Wheaton said.
The Wheatons' story is one of many dramatic incidents that played out in Volusia and Flagler counties 20 years ago — between May 30 and July 10, 1998 — when the worst of nature and best of people battled for the upper hand.
One of the worst fire seasons in the state's history started with an abrupt climate shift in March 1998. Spring is typically Florida's dry season, and busiest fire season, but this season was one like no one could remember. After a wet winter, the rain suddenly switched off. By the time the fires began in late May, rainfall in Daytona Beach was nearly 5 inches below normal, with only .3 inches of rain in April and May.
Conditions grew steadily worse in June. Not only did the beginning of the rainy season stretch far past its typical start, temperatures climbed. The mercury hit 100 degrees or more five days in a row the first week of June, and broke records six times between May 21 and July 1. Only .83 inches of rain fell in Daytona Beach in June, again 5 inches below normal.
As the rainfall deficit climbed, afternoon lightning storms began, leaving little rain but sparking dozens of new fires in parched and drying woods.
A firestorm ignited in Volusia and Flagler counties, and eventually this area became the epicenter of a massive, heroic firefighting effort in Florida. Evacuations became a daily routine, but none were bigger than the July 3 evacuation of all of Flagler County, when more than 45,000 people were forced to flee a potential inferno.
“We were overwhelmed, even with 10,000 firefighters from all over the country,” said Jim Karels, Florida Forest Service director. In 1998, Karels was assistant chief of fire control for the service, then called the Division of Forestry, overseeing operations and the aerial attack statewide.
[Click here for more images of the firefighting efforts in 1998.]
Karels once sat in a grocery store parking lot in Ormond Beach with tree islands scattered across the lot. “It was raining so much spot fire and debris that every one of those (islands) was on fire,” said Karels recently. “How can you ever stop a fire when you have conditions like that?”
Eventually, the fires would torch more than 234,000 acres in the two counties, almost half of the total acreage burned statewide that year, and destroy more than 67 homes in Flagler County and 13 homes, hunting camps and businesses in Volusia County. The fire also postponed NASCAR's historic July 4 stock car race at Daytona International Speedway until October.
Ultimately, the only thing that stopped six weeks of flames was rain.
Memories of that summer of fire remain vivid for many, including those who lost homes, evacuated or worked for days on end to fight the fires. The smell. The emotions. The exhaustion.
And every so often, as things begin to dry out in the spring and the wildfire count begins to climb, the question arises: Could it happen again?
Survivors, both firefighters and residents, say the scenes that summer were more like a movie than real life.
The News-Journal noted on May 31, 1998, that a 9-acre brush fire had started the day before near Maytown Road and Interstate 95 west of Oak Hill. It would be just one of the fires that began in interior portions of the counties in hard-to-reach swamps dried out by heat and lack of rain.
That proved to be “one of the biggest challenges,” said Mike Kuypers, who at the time was in charge of the Forest Service district for Volusia, Flagler and St. Johns counties. “Since we couldn’t get our equipment into them, they eventually burned together and created these massive fires."
On June 6, the fifth consecutive day of temperatures at or above 100 degrees, a fire started by a pipe bomb at a hunting camp was burning west of Seminole Woods, south of the Flagler County Municipal Airport. The wind shifted in the afternoon and began gusting to 30 mph. A wall of flames reportedly 200 feet high swept into Seminole Woods, which had been hurriedly evacuated. The fire destroyed 20 homes and damaged 17.
About two weeks later, as firefighters continued to battle the blazes in intense heat, a horrific lighting storm “set 130 fires all in one day" across the district, said Kuypers, who retired in 2013. The acres burning in Volusia and Flagler counties grew from more than 18,000 acres on June 21 to more than 50,000 acres on June 24. Large fires were burning together to create massive fires thousands of acres in size.
As the fires grew in size and number, Kuypers said they "just overwhelmed" available personnel and resources.
The two counties were competing for equipment and firefighters with other counties. Dozens of homes had been lost in neighboring Seminole County and big fires were burning in Brevard County to the south. At one point that summer, fires were reported in every single one of Florida’s 67 counties.
By June 30, the total size of the fire had doubled again, to more than 100,000 acres in Volusia and Flagler counties. Fires were breaking out of containment lines being plowed around them and new fires were reported daily.
The biggest fires, visible from space on satellites, added their own heat and wind to the lengthening drought and record-breaking temperatures. Smoke, thick and choking, swirled over both counties like fog. Helicopters and planes buzzed overhead, dropping loads of water and fire retardant.
I-95 was closed from Brevard County to Jacksonville. Roads were closed going into Ormond Beach and evacuations were in place in neighborhoods across the two counties.
On July 1, with more than a dozen massive fires and too many smaller ones to count, the National Weather Service issued a warning for high winds.
In Ormond Beach, where more than 15,000 residents were evacuated, a massive fire pushed by high winds, burned across I-95, destroying Wheaton’s truss plant, three other businesses and two homes, and damaging a dozen or so homes in the Bear Creek subdivision off North U.S. 1.
'Chunks of ashes, just like rain'
Ormond Beach Fire Chief Bob Mandarino remembers driving along U.S. 1 on July 2, the day after W.W. Truss burned.
“It looked like a movie set to me,” he said. “Everything was burned. The telephone poles, they were just dangling from wires in the air. It just didn’t even seem real."
That same day, “ash the size of cars” was falling in Palm Coast, said Palm Coast Fire Chief Mike Beadle, at the time a firefighter in the Palm Coast service district. One of the big fires "had a full head of steam" and was rushing toward Palm Coast. The firefighters and other officials began knocking on doors.
One of those doors belonged to Mary and Dave Hartman, who were given 15 minutes to evacuate their home on Fielding Lane. Mary Hartman had known it was bad for days. A mail carrier, she’d seen the smoke and drifting embers. They had family members helping fight the fires. In a neighborhood filled with heavily wooded, vacant lots, they’d watched bushes die in the heat. As she finished her mail route before coming home that day, she’d watched “chunks of ashes, just like rain, floating down.”
After being told to leave, she grabbed family photos, a few little treasures and, inexplicably, she said, their bills. Dave grabbed the canned ham and sweet potatoes he’d been cooking for dinner and they left, headed to a camper family members owned.
In another section of Palm Coast that day, Kathy Collazo's sons were at home on La Mancha Drive. Divorced and working two jobs to provide for her three sons, she was at work in Daytona Beach when her oldest, Jonathan, called her to tell her firefighters were saying they might need to evacuate. Then he called again.
“The second call freaked me out,” she said. “He said ‘Mom, they’re telling us we have to evacuate now.’”
The boys scattered safely with friends and family, and Collazo rushed home. But when she got there, she dawdled, taking time to eat a sandwich and wash her hair. Then a fireman came to the door.
“He screamed: ‘You guys need to get out of here now.'"
Surrounded by firetrucks as she and a friend drove over the grass to get out of the yard, she glanced to the right.
“My eyes were popping out of my head. It was a big, big gray ball of smoke,” she said. “I get chills just thinking about it.”
That fire jumped U.S. 1 and I-95 and destroyed the Hartman home, Collazo's rented home and more than 42 others in three sections of Palm Coast.
By this time hundreds of firefighters had already arrived in the two counties. But with the fires still growing in size and so many structures in danger, fire officials were putting out urgent calls, pleading for more help. Presidential disaster declarations had been signed, first in Volusia County and later in Flagler County, and help began flowing in.
'Largest airborne firefighting effort'
Eventually thousands of firefighters, from 43 states, were working in the two counties, in a situation at times chaotic and fraught with tension.
Kevin Chaffee, a fire official with the U.S. Forest Service in Idaho, was among those out-of-state firefighters. He and about a thousand firefighters were assigned to a Forest Service incident command unit at the Volusia County Fairgrounds.
Many of the firefighters had never fought fire in Florida before, said Chaffee. To them, seeing green plants such as the abundant palmettos and pine trees burn was mind-boggling.
“Down there, that stuff is green and burns like gasoline because of the oils and resins," said Chaffee, who works as a deputy fire staff on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest.
Daily briefings carried lurid warnings about the sun, heat and huge spiders they were encountering in the woods. “Guys who had never been down there before were surprised,” said Chafeee. “Everything stings or bites you.”
He recalled a firefighter working near him who ran out of the woods when he "saw the largest snake he had ever seen in his life.”
News-Journal photographer Nigel Cook snapped a photo of Chaffee surrounded by flames one afternoon, as the firefighter set fire to a strip alongside U.S. 92 to prevent a larger fire from jumping the highway. A friend of Chaffee’s mother’s saw the photo in the newspaper and sent it to her. His mother ordered a print for her son, and it remains framed on his Idaho desk.
The sheer number of firefighters, equipment and aircraft that arrived remains amazing to Jamey Burnsed, a battalion chief with Flagler County Fire Rescue.
“At the time it was the largest airborne firefighting effort ever assembled,” said Burnsed, who was a driver engineer with Ormond Beach Fire in 1998. At one point that summer, every available firefighting aircraft in the continental United States was in Florida.
Firefighters and equipment weren't the only ones here from out of town. Politicians also visited to get a firsthand look at the growing devastation, including Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, Vice President Al Gore, various state officials and candidates for office, and eventually even President Bill Clinton.
[Click here for pictures of Bill Clinton, other politicians visiting Volusia and Flagler counties]
Flagler County evacuates
Sometimes, Karels said, nature hands firefighters a break. Other times, nature gives the fires the upper hand.
On the morning of July 3, 1998, weather conditions were not forecast in the firefighters’ favor. Karels still remembers his telephone conversation with Chiles. He explained that given the seven major fires in Flagler County, with plumes of smoke and heat forecast to tower up to 40,000 to 50,000 feet high, he feared the fires could become "almost like a bomb and spread fire everywhere."
"If the sea breeze doesn't come in the potential is there for a very dangerous situation," Karel recalled telling the governor. They talked it over and Chiles decided to "evacuate the entire county."
Roads leading out of Flagler County were jammed as more than 45,000 residents hit the road.
"Thank goodness, the sea breeze came in that day,” Karels said. “The worst-case scenario didn’t develop, but the potential was there for it to happen.”
That sea breeze seemed to be a turning point. When it arrived, it rained .06 inches in Daytona Beach. Then it rained again on July 5. The rainy season had begun, more than a month later than normal. Nature finally allowed firefighters the upper hand.
By July 5, firefighters finally felt confident enough to lift the evacuation order for Hunters Ridge off State Road 40 west of Ormond Beach. On July 6, the evacuation order was lifted in Flagler County.
Beadle will never forget watching Palm Coast residents return home.
“It was phenomenal, very emotional,” he said. “We hadn’t had much sleep and people were driving by, waving their hands and honking their horns and saying, 'We love you.'”
When the Hartmans returned that day, their home had been incinerated. Although her family sifted through the ashes ask looking for items, Mary Hartman said she just couldn't.
Their neighborhood “looked like a war zone for months,” she said. She missed the trees and for months “it smelled burned.”
Several survivors said the acrid odor of burned out woods and homes will stay with them forever.
“That smell, every time, it brings back everything,” said Kathy Collazo, now Kathy Brunelle. She still lives in Flagler County. “Even my oldest son (Jonathan), he’ll say ‘Mom, the smell, it brings flashbacks.’”
“It was so sad,” she said. “It just changed our lives in a flash.”
The smell also remained with Sheryl and Roy Gray for months, but they were fortunate. Their home was still standing when they returned to Hunters Ridge with their three sons. Roy Gray, a retired police officer, was assigned and trained by firefighters to keep an eye on the neighboring woods watching for hot spots.
After weeks of fighting fire in such intense conditions, firefighters across the two counties were utterly exhausted. "It was overwhelming," said Burnsed, who remains surprised more people weren't injured or killed.
Like Wheaton, many firefighters and residents had scary close encounters with flames ripping through woods and treetops, but miraculously only one serious injury was reported and no deaths, said Karels. “We didn’t have a firefighter lose their life and we didn’t have a citizen lose their life, and that was huge.”
Ultimately valuable lessons were learned, many spelled out in a series of after-action reviews by the counties, state and national agencies. One report put the final total at 146,475 acres burned in Volusia County, about 21 percent of the total land cover in the county, and 87,639 acres in Flagler County, almost a third of the county.
In addition to the biggest factor that caused the fires — a lack of rainfall — studies also concluded a lack of prescribed burning in the forests and conservation areas helped contribute to the fires.
As a result, state agencies stepped up their efforts to do more prescribed burning on state forests and other conservation lands, doubling or tripling the amount of acres burned in the years before the fires, Karels said. State legislators passed laws making it easier for prescribed burning to take place. Even with the state’s rapid population growth, Karels said the state has managed to keep up that effort and leads the nation in prescribed burning.
Records show some years land management agencies do more burning and some years the burn seasons are cut short by weather. In three of the last four years, the Forest Service, the St. Johns River Water Management District and Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge have burned more than 15,000 acres a year in the two counties.
After-action studies also concluded a lack of equipment, a lack of resources and a lack of communication contributed to the difficulties in bringing the fires under control.
Hoping to avoid a repeat of that disastrous summer, and answering demands of angry residents, fire departments in both counties beefed up staffing, equipment and training.
Many departments added brush trucks and other military-style equipment to help fight fires in the woods. Mandarino said Ormond Beach has two large trucks that carry 1,500 gallons of water and “go anywhere in the woods.”
Flagler County added more than $7 million in equipment, including a helicopter, which still makes daily flights looking for fires in remote locations to give firefighters a chance to find and attack the flames.
It would be impossible to “put a price tag on” what the helicopter has saved the county, said Burnsed, who worries the helicopter could one day be eliminated in a budget cost-cutting measure.
Palm Coast incorporated as a city in 1999, eventually going from a dozen full-time firefighters to 72.
Training has greatly improved, with every firefighter now trained on wildfire tactics, said Mandarino, Beadle and Petito. A string of disasters — including Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and the 1998 Florida wildfires — helped bring a federal team structure for agencies working together on disasters into widespread use nationwide.
Today, emergency declarations are signed much sooner, to make sure resources and staff can be positioned promptly. That helps prevent scenarios like one Beadle remembers in Palm Coast in 1998, where a group of federal firefighters weren’t allowed to go to work until an emergency declaration was signed.
'Florida will always be flammable'
Despite the improvements over 20 years, several current and former fire officials stop short of saying a 1998 fire season can't happen again.
“Florida will always be flammable,” said Burnsed, the Flagler battalion chief. “If it gets dry enough we can certainly have massive fires," he said. "It can reach a point where it can be overwhelming for any amount of resources.”
Still, they believe firefighters are better prepared and said the chances are slimmer the results could be as drastic.
Beadle believes the measures adopted after 1998 helped avoid a similar disaster during a dangerously active fire season in 2011. He said the training, equipment, planning and partnership among agencies “paid huge dividends.”
A growing population has both positive and negative consequences, the fire officials said. For example, many once-vacant, wooded lots in Palm Coast and elsewhere have been developed, which reduces the risk in some ways. Today, unlike the early days in Palm Coast, Kuypers said, most subdivisions are built all at once.
However, more people continue moving into or close to wilderness areas farther to the west, said Burnsed, their homes surrounded by trees.
Given the growing population, Beadle said if similar large fires begin, evacuations would have to be ordered sooner to allow time for people to get safely away.
Kuypers also expressed concern. As more time passes after an event such as the 1998 wildfires, he said, "you lose the experience of people who went through it and people tend to get complacent."
Both counties, Palm Coast and the Forest Service work with residents to make them aware of the dangers and to encourage safe practices. That includes educating residents about the importance of keeping perimeters around their homes to prevent the spread of wildfire and make it easier for fire departments to stage trucks in yards to save homes.
Palm Coast went a step further, Beadle said, creating an ordinance that requires every lot to have a perimeter of 20 feet of defensible space.
The agencies also work to educate residents about the benefits of prescribed burning, which reduces the amount of underbrush in forests and can reduce the intensity of wildfires.
The fires of 1998: A look at the numbers
- 87,639 acres: Flagler County
- 146,475 acres: Volusia County
- 499,265 acres: Statewide, in 2,200 fires
- 67 homes: Flagler County
- 13 homes, businesses and hunting camps: Volusia County
Initial damage estimates
- $5.8 million: Flagler County
- $2,126,013: Volusia County
'The community rallied'
As the 1998 fires were extinguished, Ernie Wheaton and others who lost their homes and businesses began the slow process of rebuilding.
The end of the fire "was only the beginning,” he said. Any fire is followed by a tangle of complex insurance and permitting issues.
In Palm Coast, some who lost their homes took the insurance money and walked away, the Hartmans said. They chose to rebuild.
Once they had the insurance check, it was like "a new start," recalled Dave Hartman recently, sitting with Mary in their now almost 20-year-old home. To him, things were “better than before.”
His wife, sitting next to him, shook her head. “I had it planned that when we retired our house would be paid off," she said. "It set us back.”
In conversations with fire victims and firefighters, the volunteer response from community members cropped up again and again.
The Grays remembered staying in a resort hotel with their sons, the cost of their rooms covered by the hotel.
Memorabilia from the fires, some signed by firefighters from all over the country, still is displayed at the original Houligan's in Ormond Beach. “Tim Curtis from Houligan’s opened his restaurant up to firefighters,” Mandarino said.
Brunelle recalled how touched she was by the people who showed up to help them. “It was just amazing," she said.
In one of the remarkable displays of resiliency repeated often that smoky summer, the W.W. Truss company was building trusses again just two weeks after the fire, Ernie Wheaton said.
“We actually went out and bought two 40-by-60-foot circus tents and set them up, and we cut underneath those tents, he said. ”With very few exceptions, this community and everybody in the community rallied.”
Suppliers and competitors sent people to help W.W. Truss get back up and running. “Everybody just kicked it in,” he recalled. “It changed my whole image of the town I grew up in.
“Other than we lost a couple of million dollars, other than that little hiccup, you get past it," Ernie Wheaton said. "You learn about not just who you are, but who your community is.”