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    Forecast for I-4: smoke and detours


    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 21, 2001

    Click on graphic for maps of alternate routes to Orlando from the Tampa Bay area.
    Wildfires raging across Polk County likely will keep Interstate 4 closed until next week and bring more smoke to the Tampa Bay area, a state Division of Forestry official said Tuesday.

    "We anticipate smoke will again be a concern this weekend," said forestry spokesman Anne Malatesta. "Conditions will be the same as they were last weekend, and we don't want to open the road and then reclose it, so it will probably be closed through the weekend."

    As the Polk County fire continued to rage across 11,000 acres of the Green Swamp, the extreme dryness posed problems in other areas of the state.

    A fire in Fort Myers burned down two houses and destroyed several barns, a dozen cars and four or five boats late Monday. A man who lives near the fire was struck in the head by a falling branch and may have been paralyzed from the neck down, said forestry spokesman Ty Alexander.

    Local officials evacuated 300 residents, including the families from the two houses that burned.

    "One had a chance to take some things and the other got out with just the clothes on their back," said Keith Denning of the Lee County chapter of the Red Cross, which was helping the two families. "But it wasn't as bad as it could have been."

    In the Citrus Park area of Hillsborough County, a brush fire burned about 100 acres of Tampa Electric Co. land, but neither nearby homes nor the Citrus Park Town Center mall were threatened.

    And in Hernando County, people with respiratory conditions were urged to stay indoors and avoid smoke wafting from the Polk County fire. Several elementary schools kept students indoors during recess, and Central High School officials canceled baseball and softball games and a tennis match scheduled for Tuesday.

    So far this year more than 1,200 wildfires have scorched 83,000 acres around Florida. The state already is stumbling from a one-two punch of drought and wildfires.

    Firefighters who in previous years dipped their helicopter buckets into rivers, lakes, ponds and streams for water to quench the roaring flames are finding many of their usual sources nearly drained.

    "A lot of the ponds they would normally dip from, they're dry," forestry spokesman Malatesta said. "It's to the point now where if it's even a small muck fire, you just don't have the water to put it out."

    She said when friends ask her when the firefighters will put out the Green Swamp fires, she tells them, "July."

    "It's going to take a substantial amount of rainfall," she said.

    The fire, which started last Thursday from an illegal backyard trash fire, spread through a parched and vulnerable area of the Green Swamp, which Malatesta said now looks "kind of brownish-black."

    Firefighters say the hazardous conditions fed on each other. Lack of water limited growth in the treetops, which in turn sent more sunlight into the swamp. That caused heavier than normal growth along the ground.

    Controlled burns could have thinned out that growth, but officials say that part of the Green Swamp hasn't had such prescribed burns for two decades. So, in parts of the swamp, the wildfire had up to 10 feet of fuel to burn through.

    Flames rushing through the dry underbrush can shoot 80 feet in the air. The smoke boiling up was "so thick you can hardly breathe," said firefighter Frank Brogdon. This is the second fire this month to burn the swamp, which is the headwaters to the Hillsborough, Withlacoochee, Peace and Ocklawaha rivers, as well as a recharge area for the underground aquifer that supplies much of Central Florida's drinking water.

    The first Green Swamp fire this month took a life. Smoke from the 3,500-acre blaze caused a six-vehicle crash that killed the driver of a milk truck and shut down U.S. 27 at the Polk-Lake county line north of I-4. That blaze, although contained by firefighters, continues to burn weeks later.

    The second fire forced officials to close off a section of I-4 that on a normal day carries more than 60,000 vehicles headed east or west across Polk County. The smoke was not the primary concern, Malatesta said, but rather the massive trees that keep keeling over onto the asphalt.

    Although state transportation officials have diverted I-4 traffic onto the far less congested Polk Parkway (and temporarily suspended the tolls), they were encouraging motorists to find other alternatives -- State Roads 40, 50, 60 or 70, for instance.

    "If you can avoid Polk County entirely, that's the smart thing to do," said state Department of Transportation spokesman Gene O'Dell. He pointed out that I-4 "on its best day, it ain't great. You can imagine what it's like on its worst day."

    Because of the detour, the Detroit Tigers, who hold their spring training in Lakeland, had to use alternate routes to get to their practice facility. -- Times staff writer Adam C. Smith and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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