By Erika Webb
The week of April 7-13 was declared Wild Fire Awareness Week in Florida. As though choreographed, a Volusia County fire named "Mile Marker 128" started on April 11, west of Interstates 4 and 95, south of Daytona Highridge Estates, causing road two road closures in four days.
The fire started in the afternoon and grew to 181 acres by the end of the day, according to Volusia County spokeswoman Pat Kuehn.
Responding agencies included Volusia County Fire Services, Florida Forest Service, and the DeLand and Daytona Beach fire departments.
"Firefighters provided structural protection for three homes on Roosevelt Court April 11, and they were out of danger by the following day. Evacuations were not ordered," Ms. Kuehn said.
FHP closed U.S. 92 from Big John Drive to Indian Lake Road from late afternoon April 11 until 9:50 a.m. April 12; and from Indian Lake Road to Kepler Road from late afternoon April 14 until 9:30 a.m. April 15, Ms. Kuehn reported.
"On Sunday, we had three spot-overs that increased the fire's size to 225 acres; they were quickly contained, but they created a lot of smoke," she said.
Heavy rains late in the day on April 14 brought aid to firefighters.
Timber Weller, wildfire mitigation specialist for the Florida Forest Service, said the fire resulted from an "escaped authorized burn."
According to a news release from the Florida Department of Agriculture, Wild Fire Awareness Week was initiated "to recognize wildfires that raged across Florida in 1998, burning more than 500,000 acres and damaging or destroying 337 homes and structures."
"Florida's year-round wildfire season is rapidly heating up as we head into a time of high wildfire activity," said Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam H. Putnam.
This year, Florida is already experiencing a higher than average occurrence of wildfires near homes and neighborhoods, according to the news release.
"Usually wildfires don't start popping up until late April, early May," Mr. Weller said. "The dryer it is the easier they can start, the more rapidly they can grow and the harder they are to put out."
But Volusia is lagging in rainfall by about 50 to 75 percent, he said.
"Nature is cyclical. There are wetter years and dryer years. This is a dryer year," he added.
The Florida Division of Emergency Management reported 1,000 wildfires on 20,430 acres so far this year.
Typically Florida experiences more than 4,600 wildfires, burning nearly 110,000 acres of land a year. The three leading causes of wildfires are arson, uncontrolled yard debris or trash fires, and lightning, according to the state's emergency management division.
Dawn Murray, a former volunteer firefighter, lives on the outskirts of Daytona Park Estates on the east side of DeLand. A 2011 wildfire, which ultimately consumed 336 acres, burned for days about a mile from her home near Lake Ruby. It was the largest of 45 burning in Volusia on June 1 that year.
Mrs. Murray said things were touch-and-go for about a week as residents watched winds fan the flames.
Some nearby residents were evacuated.
"When it first started, yeah, I thought so because of the way the wind was blowing," she said when asked if she feared having to evacuate. "But the reality is they would have lost more homes before they got to me and they wouldn't let that happen. I believe in our firefighters."
Mrs. Murray's aunt and uncle, Harold and Peggy McIntyre, live nearby on Park Lake in Daytona Park Estates. They've endured the threat of fire more than once.
Mrs. McIntyre said they watched in awe during the summer of 1998 as helicopters repeatedly dipped water out of the lake to combat a raging fire.
"At that time, thank God we had enough water in the lake they could use that," Mrs. McIntyre said. "One helicopter would lift off and another one would come in. We were amazed, thrilled."
Mr. McIntyre recalled the 2011 Larkspur Road fire.
"I smelled smoke and drove down the road. It was almost to a house on the east side of the lake," Mr. McIntyre said.
He called 911.
"It wasn't eight minutes and they were coming up this road with bulldozers. They stopped it from coming around this side of the lake," he said.
But in 2011 water levels in area lakes were not what they were in 1998.
The couple's neighbor was worried about the parched lake being further depleted by firefighting efforts.
"I told him, 'Worry about the houses, not the lake,'" Mr. McIntyre said, laughing.
Ormond Beach resident Michelle Schindelheim was preparing for her birthday party on March 2 of this year when she smelled smoke.
"Around 10 a.m. we walked outside and there was smoke. I thought, 'Are you kidding me?'" she said.
Guests were supposed to arrive at her home off Airport Road near State Road 40 between two and four that afternoon. Instead they called to find out whether or not there would be a party.
Mrs. Schindelheim was determined to carry on.
When the Ormond Beach Police Department told the family they would have to evacuate she balked.
"I said, oh no, not before we eat," Mrs. Schindelheim said, laughing.
Two retention ponds, one on each side of her street, aided efforts to extinguish the 1,000-acre blaze, which started about four miles west of the Ormond Beach airport and spread along the Volusia-Flagler County line.
Three hundred homes were evacuated and, at one point, Interstate 95 was shut down due to poor visibility.
As helicopters scooped water from the lake, winds lifted the water from the baskets and scattered muddy showers over onlookers.
"It was gross," Mrs. Schindelheim said.
But she is thankful those ponds are there.
"We've only been in the house three years," Mrs. Schindelheim said. "You're being told to evacuate and everybody's asking me, 'What are you going to take?' My laptop with my pictures and my animals; everything else is just stuff."
The family did not evacuate. By March 3, the fire was 75 percent contained. No homes were damaged. Mrs. Schindelheim credited "our skilled emergency personnel."
But there's a long summer ahead.
Mrs. Schindelheim remains philosophical and undaunted.
"What's burned is burned and won't burn again," she said.
Mr. Weller said a pervasive dry landscape, combined with spring bringing plants out of winter dormancy, growing and using more water set the stage for fires to spark.
"Everything seems to be conspiring against moisture in the ground and the vegetative layer above it," he said.
In 1993 Mr. Weller was plowing a fire line to contain a spring brush fire when the flames unleashed and engulfed his tractor in seconds, nearly killing him and leaving him with third degree burns over 70 percent of his body.
"It was flaming over 160 feet by the time it hit me," he told Hometown News in a previous interview.
The National Fire Protection Association's Fire-wise program encourages homeowners to use prevention measures to decrease fire threats around their homes, including planting fire-resistant vegetation, trimming trees to a height of 15 feet near structures, clearing brush up to 30 feet around your home, and keeping roofs and gutters clear of debris, such as leaves and pine needles.
"Our wild-land firefighters work tirelessly to protect Florida's homes, businesses and forests from wildfire. However, citizens also have a personal responsibility to prepare their homes and families against wildfire danger," Commissioner Putnam said.