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Smoke gets in their eyes



On June 6 Seminole Woods, in Flagler County, was a neighborhood of $130,000 homes. By June 8 it was a black stain studded with charred refrigerators and water heaters.

Ted Jones told the Florida Times-Union that he and his wife, Rita, have no plans to rebuild. "We'll never live here again," he said, surveying the wreckage. "It's a tinderbox. It'll go up again."

Bet on it.

In 1985, a 30,000-acre wildfire destroyed 130 homes in Flagler. This year 600 fires have singed nearly every Florida county, and destroyed or damaged 83 houses, 54 other structures, 75 vehicles and caused more than $100 million in crop damage, according to the Florida Division of Forestry.

Seminole Woods residents said more should have been done to stop the fire, and although officials said that weather dictated the tragedy, prevention was possible.

But Florida won't do it.

Because to keep from burning up with the Joneses, state and county officials would have to tell developers how and where to build: what roofing materials are verboten; how much lawn must separate the patio from the tree line; even, unthinkably, when not to build a stand of well-appointed homes amidst the piney woods. And in Florida, telling developers what to do is as constructive as telling a 200-foot wall of flame how to behave.

"There are no laws in place that can prevent people from building in areas that we fear are fire prone," says Harriett Abrams, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service in Tallahassee. She says that while officials of her department can advise county commissioners and planning and zoning officials of their concerns, they don't make that their mission.

Instead, the Forest Service tells rural homeowners to keep emergency escape kits in their cars, with extra clothes, blankets, flashlights and food. The service also says to clean pine needles out of rain gutters, mow the grass, and clear overhanging boughs from the roof and dead branches from the property.

"From what I understand that's not being widely done," says Steve Parsons of the U.S. Forest Service.

That may be because the information is not exactly in homeowners' faces. Florida Division of Forestry has a website ( But click on "Prevention" and you're popped to the "Smokey the Bear" song.

While this year's fires have been especially virulent, they should be no surprise. Florida is one of the nation's most fire-prone states, and forest managers know well this danger of rustic living. In 1990 the state instituted a "prescribed burn" program to remove fuel built up during Smokey's 50-year reign. The preburned areas help control wildfires, but houses get in the way.

"With a lot of structures intermingled into the woods, this has made it tough," Seminole County Fire Chief Terry Schenck said in early June, after 300 people were evacuated and 15 houses, 24 vehicles and 15 sheds burned in Geneva.

Forestry Division District Manager John Koehler of Orlando wrote a study of fire prevention techniques on the "urban/wildland interface" in Los Angeles. "Prescribed fire is used in addition to clearing around structures and fire-retardant construction ordinances," Koehler notes. "Since 1983 . . . wildfires were stopped dead where burns had been completed . . . validating the overall management strategy."

In Florida, however, half a strategy is all we can manage. "The only thing that would apply is that there are required building setbacks for property lines," says Seminole County Fire Inspector Kirk Middleton, adding that those who would apply LA-LA land's laws to Florida stand as much chance as Jones' house did.

"You'd be imposing on somebody's lifestyle if you told them where they could live, if they couldn't live within x number of feet from trees, or x number of feet from a lake or a river that overflows," Middleton says. And, anyway, once the owners moved in, "they would revert it back to the way they wanted it, and the county wouldn't have enough inspectors [to check in on them]. Middleton and his two inspectors cover the entire county. Currently, he says, the big priority is inspecting homes under construction.

Thus, Seminole may grow its way out of its wildfire problem. After all, as the forest diminishes, so too the threat from forest fires.


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