By ADAM C. SMITH and CRAIG PITTMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 2001
POLK CITY -- Somebody on a dusty, oak-shaded dirt road in rural Polk County decided Thursday was a good time to burn some trash.
Five days later, tens of thousands of Floridians still are feeling the effects. By Monday night, that illegal little trash fire was an out of control 11,000-acre wildfire. A stretch of Interstate 4 between Lakeland and Orlando remained closed because of smoke, fallen trees and burned down cattle fences. Authorities said the 10-mile stretch of I-4 could be closed for days.
Meanwhile, more than 100 firefighters struggled to control a fire thriving on severe drought conditions.
"It's like leading an elephant around with a watch chain. You don't know what he's going to do," Polk County fire Capt. John Phillips said amid the haze near Polk City.
As he spoke, nearby 70-foot cypress trees periodically toppled into the smoking, charred bog. Firefighters call such trees "widow makers," because they become dangerously unstable after wildfires burn away the soil holding them up.
Gov. Jeb Bush visited the area Monday to applaud firefighters and hear a briefing that was anything but rosy. Authorities said the fire was 20 percent contained Monday evening.
"We're still in the very early stages of this," Wayne Jones, a Division of Forestry commander, told Bush. "We're still trying to halt this fire and capture it. It's jumped the lines a number of times today."
The effects of the blaze extended way beyond the parched swampland in rural Polk County.
Kids in child care as far away as St. Petersburg were kept indoors Monday morning because of smoky conditions. Two women died early Monday in a Manatee County car accident on Interstate 75 linked by one witness to smoky conditions. Countless I-4 drivers found their trips extended by more than an hour because of detours off I-4 between exits 20 and 23. Little towns like Polk City and Haines City found themselves engulfed in traffic. Convenience store clerks quickly sold out of maps and spent much of the day giving directions.
On State Road 27, just off of I-4, Madhu Dada stared at a map in a Citgo parking lot. It was 10:30 a.m., and he looked miserable.
"I've got to get to Tampa International Airport for a noon flight to New Orleans," he said. "With this detour, there is no way I'll make it."
On State Road 33 off of I-4, Steve Wetteridge and his family stopped their rented minivan near the entrance to a Mud Boggin' arena.
"Excuse me," he asked anxiously in his English accent. "Can you tell us how to get to Orlando from here? . . . We're from London on holiday for a week, and this is all a bit odd to us."
Normally about 66,000 cars and trucks travel I-4 east of U.S. 27, and about 10,000 of them then turn off at U.S. 27. The area's roads were hard-pressed to handle the additional 50,000 vehicles forced off the interstate by the fire, say state Department of Transportation officials.
To make matters worse, officials said they might have to close S.R. 33, one of the main detour routes, early this morning because of smoky conditions.
Authorities said they had little choice but to close I-4.
"Trees were falling, fire was in the median and visibility was zero. That has not improved an awful lot," said Larry Alexander, Polk County public safety director. "But that was not a decision we made without a lot of thought."
So far this year more than 1,200 wildfires have scorched 83,000 acres around the state. As of this weekend there were fires blazing in 17 counties, although so far little property has been damaged and injuries have been few.
This particular fire has been dubbed the Stagecoach fire, because it started Thursday afternoon off a little dirt road called Stagecoach Road near Polk City. Authorities say Wayne Masters, a 46-year-old Polk City resident, decided to burn some canceled checks, despite outdoor burning being banned virtually statewide.
By Thursday evening, the fire covered more than 20 acres. It quickly doubled in size. Over and over.
Authorities said Monday that illegal burning charges are pending against Masters, who could not be reached for comment. They noted that under state law he could be liable for firefighter expenses incurred, but given the scope of the effort it's unlikely any individual could make a dent in that cost.
But Gov. Bush, calling Florida's 100-year drought conditions "a powder keg waiting to explode," said he hopes the public realizes how careful they need to be.
"People need to realize there are consequences to what they do," Bush said. "Whether they throw a cigarette out on I-4 or they illegally burn in the back yard or a kid decides to start a fire, there are consequences."
- Information from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune was used in this report.
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