Winds to push haze into bay area again

There's no relief in sight to douse 236 wildfires raging across the state.

Published May 11, 2007

Smoke from distant wildfires is expected in the Tampa Bay area once again, as winds blow down from Georgia and North Florida carrying the smell of tens of thousands of acres of burning forests and grasslands.

"There's no relief in sight ... a lot of people are comparing it to the '98 fires," said Liz Compton, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. About 2,500 Florida wildfires that year burned 500,000 acres, caused three deaths, damaged 300 homes, caused $300-million in damage and forced the evacuation of 130, 000 people.

Thursday actually was a positive day for firefighters from around the state who battled the blazes, thanks to weaker winds and a bit of rain. Almost two dozen new fires began around the state, but that was less than the 80-some that flared up one day this week.

The problem is that fires are still burning and heavy rains -- the only thing that can really douse them -- are not on the horizon.

Forestry officials want rain so much they actually considered it bad news that the weakening Subtropical Storm Andrea was downgraded to a subtropical depression. Gov. Charlie Crist had expressed hope earlier in the week that rain from the storm could douse the blazes.

"Certainly the drought continues, the storm is not going to help us with any rain, so it's status quo," Compton said.

The main hope for this weekend is that an incoming front might bring in some rain, but even that wouldn't be enough. "That is going to help a little but it isn't going to put any fires out," Compton said.

The Tampa Bay area will feel -- or at least smell -- the fires because winds from the north will push the smoke southward. Forecasters think the wind bands of Andrea then will blow the smoke to this area.

"It's going to go around in a big swirl and come around in the Tampa Bay area," said Tom Dougherty, forecaster for the National Weather Service.

That should be reminiscent of Tuesday, when area residents woke up to find a smoky haze. Dougherty said it was hard to predict if today's smoke would be as thick and smelly as it was Tuesday.

Drought has made the state ripe for wildfires, and drought prompted South Florida officials to impose extra lawn-watering restrictions.

Locally, the Southwest Florida Water Management District doesn't plan to tighten its once-a-week residential watering restrictions, said spokeswoman Robyn Hanke. In January, Swiftmud passed those restrictions for its 16-county area, which at the time were the toughest of any Florida district.

Compton said one big problem is that Florida is facing so many fires so early. At the latest count Thursday, more than 87,000 acres of Florida land were burning in 236 separate fires, as far north as the Georgia border and as far south as Collier County. Many of the fires are not yet contained.

Seven homes in Florida have been destroyed and stretches of highway were closed. Health officials warned the elderly and people with breathing problems to stay indoors. No serious injuries have been reported.

Crist and Maj. Gen. Douglas Burnett of the Florida National Guard said the state has about 11,000 soldiers available and enough equipment, such as trucks and helicopters, to help Florida through the spring wildfire season. A wildfire in Baker County, which started when Georgia's largest fire on record jumped the St. Mary's River, kept residents of the tiny community of Taylor away from their homes for a third day.

About 600 residents of a mobile home park were forced from their homes for several hours after a fire sprouted and quickly grew to 20 acres Thursday morning in Lee County, north of Fort Myers.

Georgia officials issued a mandatory evacuation in southern Charlton County, saying about 300 homes may be in the path of the state's largest wildfire since 1957, when record-keeping began. The fire has burned 107,360 acres -- or 168 square miles -- of forest and swampland.

Most of Florida's wildfires have been started by lightning, although the Division of Forestry was investigating nine suspected cases of arson.

In Georgia, two boys, ages 12 and 16, were charged with starting small fires there.

Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report, which was supplemented by information from the Associated Press.

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