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Fires too close for comfort for north Florida church

Fires too close for comfort for north Florida church

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Fires too close for comfort for north Florida church

June 1, 2007  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0681}

An e-Review Feature
By Steven Skelley**

The sky turned a dark, glowing red in the middle of the afternoon as ash more than a foot across floated through the air, covering everything in sight.

People were advised to remain indoors where air conditioners could help filter breathable air, and thousands were evacuated from North Florida when wildfires in Georgia jumped the Florida state line, spreading south.

The view from the Rev. Al Donovan's home at 2 p.m. May 10 was of a darkened sky with what he called a "weird glow from the Ofekenokee forest fires in South Georgia and (that) have now moved into our North Florida Osceola Forest." He said the ash was "coming down like rain" and the air conditioner was running in his home to filter the smoke, which could be seen as far away as Central Florida. Photo by the Rev. Al Donovan. Photo #07-0582. Web photo only.

The National Interagency Fire Center estimates fires that began in the Okefenokee Swamp near the Florida-Georgia border April 16 and May 5 have consumed more than half a million acres.

Members of Siloam United Methodist Church in rural Columbia City in the Florida Conference’s North West District warily watched as the fire neared their community.

“At 3:30 p.m. (May 10) our world went dark except for the glow from our automatic yard lights and the red sky in the background,” said the Rev. Al Donovan, the church’s pastor. “Ash as large as whole cabbage palm fronds fell like rain. Breathing without a filter mask was difficult and dangerous.”

The fires began with a lightning strike in the Okefenokee Swamp 10 miles southeast of Waycross, Ga., and 16 miles west of Folkston, Ga., in Ware and Charlton counties, according to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. The fire crossed the Florida border and burned into Baker and Columbia counties.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, the Florida fire, dubbed the Bugaboo Scrub Fire, was 90 percent contained as of May 31, with crews in the mop-up phase. The Georgia fire, called the Big Turnaround Fire, was 50 percent contained.

No United Methodist property has been damaged, according to reports from the Florida Conference Disaster Recovery Ministry.

Donovan said more than 800 firefighters from across the state arrived to fight the fires, with fire engines and bulldozers coming from as far away as Orlando, Winter Park, West Palm Beach and St. Petersburg. Restaurants in Orlando prepared and shipped food for fire crews, which worked 24 hours a day for more than 11 days straight battling the blaze. A phosphate mining company in Hamilton County sent four D-7 Caterpillar dozers along with operators and support teams.

Donovan said members of the 137-year-old church were prepared to do what they could to help their neighbors.

“We had our fellowship hall at the ready if anyone needed a place to hole up,” Donovan said.

For nearly a century and a half, members of the church have worked to make a positive impact on their community, according to Donovan. Women from the church have make jackets and caps for cancer patients. Church members operate a booth at the yearly Relay For Life Cancer Rally, and the church’s children raised $500 for Heifer International this year. They invite neighbors to annual Thanksgiving Day and Easter dinners, make baskets of food for the needy, and donate the sanctuary and church hall for neighbors’ funerals.

“We have an active prayer chain for obtaining help from on high,” Donovan said.

The church’s passion for outreach includes regularly supporting local missions, such as the local Christian Service Center, which is helping more than 2,800 fire victims who were displaced and many others who suffered losses to property and belongings.

The center needs help, however, according to Donovan, and he is encouraging churches and Christians throughout Florida to do what they can to replenish needed supplies.

“They have emptied their food banks to fire victims. What is acutely needed is non-perishable food. If cash can be sent we can buy it (supplies) in bulk here and obtain items that can all be utilized effectively,” he said.

Churches that would like to help fire victims may contact Shirley McManus, the Christian Service Center’s director, at P.O. Box 2285, Lake City, FL 32056.

As of May 31, the Florida Division of Forestry’s Web site reported 20 fires of more than 300 acres in size burning in Florida. Drought conditions caused by a weak La Niña weather pattern in the Pacific Ocean are expected to continue, increasing the likelihood of additional fires caused by lightning strikes. This year’s hurricane season will be needed to “help replenish extremely low water levels across the state,” according to the Division of Forestry.

Wildfire safety procedures and tips are posted on the Florida Conference Web site at


This article relates to 2007 Wildfires.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Skelley is a freelance writer based in Beverly Hills, Fla. His columns appear in the Naples Sun Times newspaper and Faith & Tennis magazine.