Flames quickly march through parched state

Published May 12, 2007

LAKE CITY - A sprawling wildfire that scorched more than 100, 000 acres of the Okefenokee Swamp shut down this North Florida town Friday. Some residents donned surgical masks to screen out the thick smoke, and the drugstore did a brisk business in eye drops.

Firefighters were trying to build a fire wall to stop the blaze from reaching Interstate 10, the main east-west highway across the northern part of the state.

Meanwhile the smoke from the fire, blown southward by remnants of Subtropical Storm Andrea, blanketed the Tampa Bay region. Satellite images showed it curling down to join plumes from fires in Collier County, curving around the Keys and settling in over parts of South Florida.

The Bugaboo fire, which got its name from the section of the Okefenokee where it started, was the largest of 223 wildfires that burned Friday in 47 of Florida's 67 counties. By Friday evening, the number of fires was down to 119.

Since January, wildfires have burned 295, 500 acres in the state.

"It's kind of dangerous out there, " state meteorologist Ben Nelson said.

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The powerful and wily Bugaboo fire swept through the Osceola National Forest so quickly that the charred foliage was left frozen in time, blackened pine needles pointing in the direction the blaze traveled.

For 17 years Peter Myers has fought these fires across the southeastern states for the U.S. Forest Service. But even he has never seen anything like it.

"This is probably the worst fire I've seen in the South, " he said. "The way it's moving, the way we can't catch it. Every time we think we've got it, it jumps out on us.

"We've been running for three or four days now, pretty much nonstop."

The fire destroyed everything it touched at a hunting camp at Impassable Bay. The metal roofs of trailers were left crumpled like paper. Concrete blocks lay in pieces. Refrigerators and ovens lay on their backs, splayed open. The fire even took the color from the place.

"You saw the middle of the fire come in there and it left nothing but sticks out there, " Myers said. "It came through that fast."

Inexplicably, in a corner of the camp, one lone trailer remained standing. Beige, trimmed in green, it sat untouched despite two full gas cans sitting nearby.

"It's just like any hurricane or tornado, " Myers said. "It picks its spots."

The Bugaboo fire started with a bolt of lightning that hit in the Okefenokee Swamp sometime Saturday. When Subtropical Storm Andrea battered the Georgia coast with gale-force winds this week, it pushed the fire through the tinder-dry underbrush.

By Thursday, as it spread into the Pinhook Swamp in Florida, the smoke blocked out the sun in Lake City, a town of 10, 000 people where I-10 intersects with Interstate 75. As the streets filled with a yellowish haze, public schools shut down. So did day care centers and government offices. Florida residents living north of I-10 were ordered to evacuate.

As of 3:30 p.m. Friday, it had burned through 97, 000 acres on the Georgia side of the state line and 82, 000 acres in Florida, for a total of 179, 000 acres.

"The last time Pinhook Swamp burned, back in '98, it burned about 30, 000 acres and it took two weeks, " said Columbia County Manager Dale Williams. "It burned like twice that yesterday in one day. It's scary."

Friday was actually a good day for firefighters. The winds died down and the humidity picked up. During the calm, crews dug miles of shallow fire lines to keep the fire - and all the smaller blazes it spawned - contained.

"We just cannot let our guard down and assume one line will do, " said Florida Department of Forestry official Annaleesa Winter. "Because one line hasn't done so far."

Myers is hopeful their good luck Friday can continue this weekend.

"The wind didn't show up today, the humidity is up today. It's kind of a good day for us, " he said. "We're getting close. We'll see what happens in the next couple of days."

* * *

With most of the state caught in what Nelson called "a severe to extreme drought, " some residents with long memories began to wonder if Florida is in for a repeat of the disastrous summer of 1998.

That year, wildfires burned in every county, consuming 500, 000 acres, destroying 330 houses and other buildings. Over the Fourth of July weekend, all 40, 000 residents of Flagler County had to flee their homes. More than 10, 000 firefighters from across the nation helped battle the fires. Summer rains finally squelched the threat.

At least one indicator suggests this year could be worse.

The 1998 fires were preceded by one of the wettest years on record, noted Jim Harrell of the state Division of Forestry. By contrast, this spring was preceded by more than eight months of abnormally dry conditions.

As in 1998, state officials are pinning their hopes on the summer rainy season, which usually begins in June. Nelson said the signs are good that help from the weather is on the way.

"I don't know if it will solve all our problems, but we're fairly confident that we won't have a 1998 repeat, " Nelson said. However, he added, "It will take a full summer of above-normal rain to get us out of this drought. ... Not that anybody's wishing for anything, but it's probably going to take a tropical system to get us out of this."

Times staff writer Melanie Ave contributed to this report, which includes information from the Gainesville Sun, the Lake City Reporter, the Baker County Press, the Florida Times-Union and the Associated Press.

The forecast

The smoke is expected to stick around through this morning, clear out by evening and stay away for a few days.

Your health Even healthy people can experience symptoms from the smoke, so the experts recommend you avoid prolonged outdoor activities.

Travel problems

FHP reported few major problems. A plane was diverted to St. Petersburg-Clearwater from TIA. A plane also was diverted to Pinellas from Orlando.

The cleanup If you find ash on your car, don't wipe if off; the grit could harm the finish. Hose it down or take it to a car wash.