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Where there's smoke...

There isn't always fire. Haze in the bay area Friday came from burning swamp and brush miles away.


© St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2001

Hot dog vendor John Dalessandro was driving to work when he smelled something burning.

He pulled over and checked the vending stand hooked to the back of his car, but that wasn't the source.

The smoke that blanketed much of the Tampa Bay area Friday morning had drifted west from a 2,100-acre fire 70 miles away in a bone-dry section of the Green Swamp, near Walt Disney World.

"I'm amazed it's coming all the way from Polk County," Dalessandro said from his post on a downtown St. Petersburg street corner. "It's making me nauseous."

The smoke, fouling an otherwise bright morning, cast a midday pall from Dade City south to Sarasota and Punta Gorda.

In Pinellas and Polk counties, officials issued air pollution advisories, suggesting that people with respiratory problems stay indoors until conditions improve. Phones rang so much at local fire departments that officials urged people to try to confirm the source of a blaze before dialing 911.

With only light winds expected overnight, meteorologists predicted the smell will be much less noticeable today.

But the fire is expected to be a problem for weeks, if not months, as it feeds on the dry, mucky fuel of a swamp badly in need of water. It is currently the most worrisome hot spot in Florida, which is tinder-dry from two straight years of drought conditions.

Firefighters also worked to contain a fire that burned more than 700 acres about 10 miles north of Lakeland and a much smaller blaze south of Lakeland near Mulberry. These and more than 40 other smaller fires across the state come in the wake of official bans on outdoor burning issued recently in Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties. Restrictions already were in place in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

"Normally we're not this dry until April or May so our fire season is expected to be very active and long," said Timber Weller, a spokesman for the state Division of Forestry.

Weller spoke Friday from the northern edge of the Green Swamp fire, which straddles Lake and Polk counties. As the crow flies, Disney World is only 4 miles to the northeast.

Flames crackled high and hot in the brush behind him. Ashes swirled around his white helmet, and the gray smoke was so thick it reduced the sun to a small orange orb. Three helicopters rumbled overhead, dumping buckets of water where they could. One was sent by the National Guard, which also is dispatching ground troops so that local and state firefighters will be available for other fires that may break out across the region.

"Basically," Weller said, "we're hitting it with everything we've got."

The smoke was visible Friday from Interstate 4, rising from the pine-dotted landscape like a Texas-size geyser.

It all began Tuesday when a truck accident felled a utility pole, sparking a fire in the parched grass that crunches underfoot along State Road 474 in Lake County. From there, southeasterly winds drove it into the swamp and toward the Polo Park subdivision with 900 homes, including newer models with two-story garages for RVs.

While some residents cleared out, firefighters worked through the night digging a line of dirt along the fire's southeastern flank to protect homes. The line held until Friday's winds shifted to the north and west, pushing the fire back into the wilderness.

Meanwhile, under cover of darkness, the smoke slithered west along the I-4 corridor, causing thousands of Tampa Bay area residents to rise Friday morning with the semi-alarming thought that the fire was really close.

How could it have traveled so far?

Blame it on a "temperature inversion" said John McMichael, a National Weather Service meteorologist based in Ruskin.

Temperatures on the ground became cooler than the temperatures thousands of feet in the air, he explained. This created a solid mass of stable air high in the atmosphere and allowed the smoke to blow southwest beneath it.

The same thing could happen today, McMichael said.

The smoke did not affect Super Bowl preparations at Raymond James Stadium on Friday, and crowds poured into the adjacent NFL Experience. But whether the brush fire will affect Sunday's game -- or motorists trying to get to it from Central Florida -- remains to be seen.

Michael Kelly, executive director of the Tampa Bay Super Bowl Task Force, said organizers have been monitoring reports of the fire carefully, though there is no sense of alarm. Of particular interest is whether smoke will reduce visibility on I-4.

"We'll be able to go to secondary routes if necessary," Kelly said. "The NFL transportation office and the Florida Highway Patrol are in close communication."

Weller, the state forestry spokesman, said weather reports indicate that winds will be pushing the smoke north to northeast by Sunday, which should keep it away from I-4.

Until the smoke does blow out of town, fire, forest and health officials all have advice for area residents.

For people with breathing problems -- from kids with asthma to anyone with emphysema, bronchitis or even a simple cough -- the acrid haze is likely to make them worse. Physicians on Friday recommended that people with these conditions stay inside as much as possible.

"This is definitely a big trigger for a lot of respiratory diseases. Stay indoors. This is dangerous stuff," said Dr. Jeffrey M. Ewig, a St. Petersburg pulmonologist who practices at All Children's Hospital.

It's worse than cigarette smoke, Ewig said, "especially the closer you get to that site."

Local emergency rooms reported no increase in patients with respiratory distress Friday. Lisa Patterson, a spokeswoman at St. Anthony's Hospital, said emergency room staff speculated that the cool weather early Friday was keeping people inside, reducing problems.

All roads near the burning swampland are open, but Florida Highway Patrol officials said they were monitoring the situation and warned nearby motorists that visibility could be reduced to a quarter-mile.

If people do have to drive through smoke, they should be aware of changing conditions, according to the FHP. They also should slow down and use their low beam headlights.

- Times staff writers Wes Allison and Christopher Goffard contributed to this report.

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