tampabay.com

As flames calm, smoke smothers highways

The weather finally favors North Florida firefighters, but it's a disaster on I-10 and I-75.

By JAMAL THALJI
Published May 13, 2007


LAKE CITY - Things had to get worse before they could get better for those fighting the 100,000-acre fire that is raging through northeast Florida.

Saturday, it got a lot worse.

Thick acrid smoke blanketed a huge swath of interstates 75 and 10, forcing a shutdown that sent thousands of cars and trucks off to side roads that quickly gridlocked for miles around.

And they are expected to remain shut down today, opening only as conditions permit, to let stranded travelers to pass.

The bitter plume of smoke drifted south Saturday across much of the state, including the Tampa Bay area.

All that smoke resulted from a positive change in the weather, one that meant that the once-unpredictable, incendiary Bugaboo Fire had calmed down a bit.

Officials blamed an "inversion" -- the result of an unusual temperature change high above that can act like a lid for what's below, in this case, smoke.

"This inversion is a problem for the traffic," said Florida Division of Forestry incident commander Sonny Greene. "But it helps our firefighters make progress. The humidity is up, the wind is giving us a break so we can continue to push (fire) lines, mop up and keep people safe."

The key is the weather.

"This is a wind-dominated fire," said fire behavior analyst Rick Reitz. "Wherever the wind is blowing from, the fire is going too."

And long-sought rain is expected today. A cold front from the north is forecast to hit this afternoon, dousing some of the flames threatening Columbia and Baker counties.

But there is a risk, because with the rain comes wind and lightning, which is what started this sprawling fire in Georgia's Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in the first place.

"You can get gusty, erratic winds with a thunderstorm," National Weather Service meteorologist Tony Edwards said. "As dry as it is out there, a lightning strike could potentially start a new fire."

Idle in the fast lane

The closing of I-75 and I-10, two of Florida's main arteries, left local and state authorities juggling gridlock caused by motorists stranded on the closed interstates and exits, and jammed alternate roads. All this with Mother's Day coming.

One solution announced Saturday evening: open the interstates up -- when conditions allowed -- to take the pressure off.

"We're trying to open up and get some of the people to where they need to go," said Florida Highway Patrol Maj. Rick Carpenter. "But at a moment's notice we could be right back to where we were (Saturday) morning and close it again."

Even with that, authorities warned it is no place to go if there's any alternative. They appealed for drivers to avoid almost 200 miles of I-75 and I-10 near the Florida-Georgia border. From Georgia to Lake City, I-75 will still be closed, and so will I-10 from Baldwin to Live Oak.

Both highways were a nightmare Saturday. Impenetrable smoke led to a spate of minor accidents and stranded drivers up and down both highways.

Then drivers flowing onto alternate routes like U.S. 90 overwhelmed towns like Lake City and Live Oak. One plus for locals: motel bookings jumped.

Earlier in the week, sections of the Florida Turnpike and a section of Interstate 75 in South Florida known as Alligator Alley were closed due to smoke and fires, but those roads have since been reopened, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

Twilight at noon

What happened in North Florida on Saturday is similar to what happened Friday in the Tampa Bay region, where people awoke to clear skies that were then darkened by 10 a.m. with clouds of smoke and ash.

In some places, air quality was so poor it was unsafe for even otherwise healthy people to spend much time outdoors.

By Saturday, much of that smoke had streamed away, leaving behind a haze that made the sun appear red in the morning. Even so, federal air quality reports for the Tampa Bay region indicated there was enough particulate in the air in St. Petersburg to be unsafe for people with chronic lung diseases such as asthma.

Parts of Tampa still measured enough smoke matter to be unsafe for healthy people to have prolonged exposure.

Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg saw a slight increase Saturday in patients seeking help for respiratory problems due to the smoke, hospital spokeswoman Nancy Waite said. Those patients had other chronic lung conditions that were exasperated by the contamination, Waite said.

Officials at Tampa General Hospital, All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, and Hernando and Pasco facilities reported normal patient levels.

The pollution on both sides of the bay was forecast to drop back down to the "moderate" level today, according to a consortium of federal agencies that track air quality.

Officials across the state are also hoping for rain. The National Weather Service is reporting a 30 percent chance of scattered showers today and a 40 percent chance on Monday for the Tampa Bay area. Other local forecasts put those chances slightly lower, at 20 percent.

Up in the northern part of the state, national weather forecasters predicted a 50 percent chance of thunderstorms for today.

Ahead of the flames

Despite all the difficulties Saturday, firefighters said the day marked a turning point.

For days, the sprawling Bugaboo Fire had the initiative, jumping fire lines and roads and racing across swampland as hundreds of firefighters chased it.

They contained about 10 percent, keeping it about 6 miles north of I-10.

Saturday, as the wind died down, they had a chance to catch up.

"It's a chess match," said incident commander Mike Quesinberry.

Firefighters made their first countermoves as Friday night turned into Saturday morning, plowing 12 miles of fire lines, and hoped to bulldoze another 12 miles by this morning.

"We all understand that the weather conditions have moved to the point where we have a little bit of breathing room," Quesinberry said. "But it also gives us a sense of urgency that we need to take care of everything we can while we have time."

Staff writers Thomas Lake, Thomas Marshall, Alisa Ulferts and Ben Montgomery contributed to this report.

Florida wildfires

These are some of the major wildfires burning in the state, and their sizes as of 6 p.m. Saturday.

Fire

County Acres
Bugaboo (Fla.) Baker 101, 000
Balsa Collier 18, 027
Dairy Road Bradford 15, 110
WF Airport Road Flagler 6, 800
Middle of Nowhere Charlotte 4, 600
Lee Lake 2, 551
Red Oak Lake 850
Source: Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services