The fires

For more than a month, it hasn’t rained much more than a spit in Central Florida. Starting around Memorial Day brush fires started to burn, glazing the skies with smoke. A few hundred acres here and there would burn and the heat got worse. Then on Thursday, the fires got bigger. One small fire joined with another to make a bigger fire. Then another bigger fire started in another county. Scores of new fires broke out and tens of thousands of people were evacuated from their homes.

Dallas Turners rests during a break in fighting fires near Mims, Fla.
photo by Tom Burton, 1998

Because of the crisis, the Fourth of July weekend came and went without celebration. Personal fireworks were banned and public fireworks displays were canceled. The Pepsi 400 NASCAR race at the Daytona International Speedway was postponed until October because fires were within a few miles of the track. Swimming at the beach became impossible because most of the fires are near the Atlantic coast. Swimming in lakes and rivers was impossible because the high temperatures had made the water so hot that harmful bacteria was breeding in the shallows.

I had planned to take a long weekend with my family but instead was pulled into work as the newsroom went into full “disaster mode” to cover the fires. Nearly everyone worked extra hours. The newspaper added pages and all three of our local television stations shifted to 24-hour coverage for more than three days.

I has able to stay home Friday, spending most of the day in the air conditioning with the kids. On Saturday, I drew the difficult assignment of shooting Fourth of July art. Over the years I have worked on the Fourth many times but none of the events I usually cover were happening. I went to a state park and shot two boys looking into the springs and not swimming because of the bacteria.

Sunday I had my first assignment to cover the fires. Other photographers on staff had covered the initial assignments, mostly in our regional bureaus where the fires began. I was glad to finally get in the field to cover this story that had become so important to our community.

I left in the morning for Brevard County which is east of Orlando and home to Cocoa Beach and the Kennedy Space Center. Fires had hit the northern part of the county near the towns of Mims and Scottsmore but had been brought under control. It wasn’t as bad as further north where all of Flagler County was evacuated for several days, but several neighborhoods in Brevard had been hit hard by the fires.

Sheriff’s deputies at roadblocks directed me towards the most serious burn areas. Driving into Mims, I saw a pile of ash that had once been a double-wide mobile home. Two people were there, walking slowly around the property.

The Mouireheads

Woody and Barbara Mouirehead had been in Georgia when the fires broke out. They had a hard time getting back to Mims because 145 miles of Interstate 95 had been closed for three days. They had been at their home for only a few minutes before I arrived.

Barbara talked the most, pointing out the charred motorcycle frame that had been her son’s dirt bike. She shook her head often and wiped the sweat and tears from her face. Woody found a Craftsman socket wrench set he could return at Sears under a life-time guarantee. Barbara found two porcelain doll heads she had made that survived the fire that was so hot the steel foundation of the trailer was twisted.

I talked with them as we walked around the property and I made pictures here and there. Some neighbors stopped to talk with them and I headed down the road.

I found a group of firefighters on their lunch break, sitting at the edge of a charred out pine stand. The scene was a panorama of charcoal with a pinch of green on palmetto bushes that hadn’t burned through. I shot pictures of the group and then pulled out a 200 mm telephoto lens to focus on one firefighters lying on the ground, getting a brief moment of rest. Dallas Turner of Clayton, Oklahoma looked weary, but not beaten. His youthful face reminded me of the boys I’d seen in Civil War photos.

After their break, I photographed a team of firefighters from California that had arrived the day before as they worked on a hot spot behind Ray Presley’s house. They dug into the steamy soil (in Florida, even the dirt burns), and sprayed foam into the ashes.

The reporter from the Sentinel showed up and I took him back to the Mouirehead’s land, hoping that they might still be there. It had been several hours by then, but Woody and Barbara had returned to wait for officials from FEMA. After I introduced them to Joe, I shot a few more pictures then returned to the car to get a digital video camera. I taped about five minutes of video for use on the Sentinel’s web site and on a Central Florida News 13, 24 hour local news channel our newspaper is a part-owner.

Back at the paper, the photos of the Mouireheads and of Dallas Turner were the best. An Associated Press freelancer was at the office and he transmitted those photos to the news service and I left the negatives with my editors for possible use in the Sentinel.

You leave the office never knowing what might happen in the editing. Although I knew they were looking at my photos for good display, I never count on good display, just in case. In today’s edition Dallas Turner, shown lying quietly on his side, was on the front page. The photo ran the entire width of the page – the largest photo I have ever had on the front page in 15 years at the Sentinel. Our newspaper doesn’t normally run photos that large but a combination of the big story and thoughts of a redesign on the horizon combined for a gigantic photo.

The headline over the photo read “HOW MUCH MORE?” In the past 42 days, more than 458,000 acres have been burned by 2,000 separate fires. An estimated 153 homes have been lost and the cost, in damage and firefighting , is at $386 million. This afternoon, a storm broke out in Orlando and as I finish writing this three hours later, it is still raining.

Tom Burton

published originally on July 6, 1998 at digtalstoryteller.com

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