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Waiting out the fire

A family flees its home near Lake City and counts on firefighters to have one to return to.

By JAMAL THALJI
Published May 13, 2007


LAKE CITY - They had chicken and dumplings for supper and washed the dishes.

Karen Hilgerson took a shower, slipped on her pajamas and bathrobe and sat down with a cup of coffee. She would go to sleep early and worry about the fire tomorrow.

Then the firefighters shined a spotlight in her front window off Green Cemetery Circle, in the little village of Deep Creek, north of Lake City.

That was Thursday evening. She has been at the Days Inn ever since, sharing a small room with three teenagers, two small children and two dogs.

"As of now, they say our homes are all safe, " said Hilgerson, 42, "and they're just fighting to keep it that way."

Mandatory evacuations for residents along U.S. 441 and Interstate 10 affected about 150 homes and about 570 evacuees, officials say. There's just one evacuation shelter open, Winfield Community Center, with about 19 evacuees.

Because of the fire conditions, officials won't let evacuated residents return to their homes. But they're not letting residents who didn't evacuate leave because of the dangerous visibility, and to keep U.S. 441 clear for emergency vehicles and heavy machinery.

Hilgerson missed work Friday at Rupert's Bakery in downtown Lake City. They have to pay the weekend rate now for the room, $79 a night, $10 more. And no one can say when they can return home. Financially, how much longer can this go?

"We'll feel the concussion next week, " Hilgerson said.

She spent Saturday sitting outside the second-floor walkway smoking Marlboros. Her oldest studied for a nursing exam. The boys played with their Xbox 360.

The woods are right behind her home in Deep Creek, the yard is a sea of dry leaves and the fire was just a few miles away, last she heard.

Hilgerson doesn't know how they'll celebrate Mother's Day. She figures the firefighters standing between the fire and her home have given her enough already. "As close as it has got to be to my place, " she said, "and it's still standing?"