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Clinton to see fire damage

By John PacentiAssociated Press Published: July 9, 1998 12:00 AM

The critics said the state hinders controlled burns, where shrubs and trees are torched to remove potential fuel for wildfires. Some contend the burns might have helped when the drought-stricken state erupted in flames in May.

"Every land owner wants to do more controlled burns, but they have tied our hands with regulations," said Betty Jo Strickland, whose family owns nearly 14,000 acres in hard-hit Flagler County. "We control-burned for 50 years, but last year they said we couldn't burn at night, which is the safest time to do so."

Since late May, more than 484,000 acres have been scorched and at least 350 homes and businesses destroyed from the blazes, caused in part by searing temperatures and a lack of rain.

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It has cost officials more than $104 million to fight the blazes, which have caused about $276 million in damage. Three people died and an estimated 100 were injured, most of them firefighters.

Thousands of residents in Flagler, Volusia and Brevard counties fled their homes last week as the wildfires closed in on their communities, but most have returned. Clinton was to tour Volusia County today.

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Strickland's extended family lost more than 5,000 acres of timber they could have saved themselves, she said, if new state restrictions had allowed preventative burning before the summer.

"People didn't want the smoke in their neighborhood, but I bet they didn't like to evacuate or have their homes burning," she said. "The state backed the individual over the people and they have to take responsibility in a big, big way."

State agriculture officials said night burning is unsafe because of stagnant smoke and the availability of fewer firefighters. They encourage burning in the day.

But a University of Florida ecologist and others say the fear of lawsuits is preventing controlled burns in many rural areas.

"Landowners are afraid of being sued over health problems caused by prescribed fires and over damage if the fires get out of control," said Henry Gholz, a professor for forest ecology. He warned it is only a matter of time before the state will see another swarm of fires due to drought, lightning and lack of controlled burning.

Many fires were still lingering today.

On Wednesday, a helicopter dropped hundreds of pingpong balls filled with anti-freeze and a flammable chemical in a controlled burn of 600 acres to protect 8,000 acres of valuable timber and farm land in Volusia County.

"It's their livelihood here, that's how they make their money," said firefighter Barry O'Neill, who came from Memphis to help out. "At first glance it may seem odd for us setting fires, but it makes sense."

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