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    Fire closes I-4 in Polk County

    Flames leap over the interstate on the eve of the Daytona 500, snarling traffic amid heavy smoke.

    By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2001


    Extremely dry conditions fueled an unpredictable brush fire Saturday near Polk City that charred nearly 1,500 acres, damaged two houses and forced the closure of Interstate 4 on the eve of the Daytona 500 race.

    The fire crossed the interstate Saturday night and moved a quarter-mile past the highway. It was still out of control about 10 p.m. Saturday.

    No homes were in immediate danger, said Polk County spokeswoman Sara Hallett.

    "There's just not really enough water in the world to spray this fire out, so the main thing we can do is try to protect people's homes," said forestry spokeswoman Anne Malatesta.

    No injuries were reported.

    Heavy smoke and flames forced the Florida Highway Patrol to close a 10-mile section of Interstate 4 between U.S. 27 and State Road 33 near Polk City. The section will remain closed until visibility conditions are re-evaluated this morning, officials said.

    "They have to do it for safety reasons," Hallett said.

    Heavy traffic is expected along the route for the Daytona 500 today. Saturday afternoon, traffic backed up for several miles and visibility was down to about 100 feet in some places.

    Electronic message boards and emergency officials are expected to reroute motorists today if closures persist.

    As of Saturday night, several barns and outbuildings were destroyed and aluminum siding on two homes had heat damage, authorities said.

    Late Friday, about 30 homes were evacuated, according to the Florida Division of Forestry's Lakeland office.

    Residents were able to return to their homes after the fire passed and slowly angled south toward Auburndale and Haines City, said Malatesta.

    Malatesta estimated that 110 firefighters were trying to protect property from the fire, which had found exceptionally rich fuel to feed on as it burned through dry underbrush in the Green Swamp.

    Firefighters elsewhere in the state Saturday battled wildfires, also ignited by dry conditions, getting one fully contained after it burned 3,000 acres in Okeechobee and Indian River counties.

    That blaze burned down electricity transmission lines in western Indian River County and forced the evacuation of a fish camp near Blue Cypress Lake in a sparsely populated farming area.

    A section of State Road 60, a major highway in the area, was closed to traffic Friday but reopened by Saturday morning. The blaze, which started Friday in Okeechobee County, was pushed by high winds east into Indian River County.

    Three other fires burned north of Polk City Saturday, including a 3,400-acre fire on the Lake and Polk county line, and nearby blazes that were 400 and 900 acres.

    Also, a fire that had already burned 500 acres in Osceola County was expected to grow.

    - Times staff writer Leanora Minai and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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