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    Lake bed burns as dry drags on

    Lake Okeechobee's marshes are so dry that the lake bottom is burning like grass.

    By CRAIG PITTMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 6, 2001


    How dry is Florida? So dry that Lake Okeechobee, known as "Florida's Liquid Heart," actually caught fire.

    The blaze started Friday in a southwestern corner of the lake that normally is marshy. Because of the state's prolonged drought, the marshes have dried out enough for the lake bottom to burn like any forest or grassland fire.

    By Monday the flames had scorched more than 20,000 acres of lake bottom due east of the town of Moore Haven.

    "It's burning as far as I can see," said Mike Sawyer, a fire mitigation specialist with the state Division of Forestry's Okeechobee office. "Twenty thousand acres -- that's a big fire."

    Burning of yard debris, land for any reason and unauthorized pile burns are prohibited in Hernando, Pasco, Polk, Sumter, Lake, Alachua, Levy, Bradford, Union, Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties, according the state's Emergency Operations Center. An additional ban on the sale and use of fireworks is in force in Pasco, Sumter, Levy and Union counties.

    So far no homes or businesses have been damaged, and no injuries reported. About 50 people were asked to leave Sportsman's Village campground for a few hours Sunday because of thick smoke, but Sawyer said no further evacuations are planned.

    Authorities haven't determined the cause of the fire, but Sawyer said firefighters suspect arson. They are working to contain the fire and expect to let it burn another 10,000 acres before it is done. That should burn off the potential fuel for future wildfires, he said, as well as destroy exotic plants such as melaleuca.

    The Okeechobee fire is another sign of how brutal Florida's ongoing drought has become. Coupled with a cold winter that turned green forests brown, the state's wildlands have been turned into tinderboxes.

    Though 2001 is little more than a month old, Florida already has seen nearly 400 wildfires -- more than broke out in the same period in 2000 and 1999, according to state forestry officials.

    Florida's wildfire season peaks in early spring, the dry season. Even if rainfall amounts return to normal, it still won't provide enough soaking to ease conditions, officials said.

    In the Tampa Bay area, 2000 was one of the driest years in history, with rainfall coming in about 15 inches below normal. In December, smoke from a 450-acre muck fire caused 11 accidents on Interstate 75 near Lake Panasoffkee, killing a Zephyrhills trucker. A fire in the Green Swamp area near Disney World cast a smokey pall over the area just before last month's Super Bowl weekend.

    State officials want to avoid a repeat of 1998, when flames blackened a half-million acres and forced 130,000 people to evacuate. About 300 homes and 33 businesses were damaged or destroyed.

    Lake Okeechobee, the second-largest freshwater lake entirely within the contiguous United States, is supposed to be the primary source of water for farmers and cities in South Florida.

    Water managers held the lake's level so high for so long that it was drowning marshes and hurting birds and fish. It also harmed the lake's bass fishing business.

    So last spring, they drained it down from 15 feet to 13 feet to restore the lake's health. But the hurricane season that was supposed to replenish the lake turned out to be drier than expected. The level has now dropped to below 11 feet above sea level and could drop to a 20-year low of 9.6 feet by May.

    That's why the marshlands were dry enough to burn. Another blaze, sparked in dry grasses by all-terrain vehicles, struck a small island near Belle Glade on Sunday.

    At Uncle Joe's Marina on Saturday, the fire crept so close that workers kept the camp doused with water.

    On Monday, smoke still hung thick in the air. But avid anglers, undeterred, headed out with their rods and reels.

    - Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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