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    Smoke continues to choke I-4

    A 10-mile stretch of the heavily traveled highway will remain closed for another weekend.

    [Times photo: Skip O'Rourke]
    With little chance of significant rain in sight, wildfires continue to burn in Polk County near Interstate 4.

    By ROBIN MITCHELL

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2001


    Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency Friday as fire officials announced that the smoldering Polk County muck fire will keep a 10-mile stretch of Interstate 4 closed for yet another weekend in peak tourist season.

    Click here for maps of alternate routes to I-4.
    Click for updates from the I-4 Web site.
    Scattered showers forecast for today will do little more than spritz the fires and creeping embers that have burned about 10,500 acres of the Green Swamp.

    Firefighters today will begin building a gigantic sprinkler system, fed through a 3,000-foot pipeline made of 6-inch pipes. By Sunday, the line is expected to be pumping water into the muck 24 hours a day.

    Bush on Friday activated the Florida National Guard for fire duty and appeared ready to pull out all stops in combating the fires that are popping up all over the tinder-dry state, where some 91,000 acres already have been scorched this year.

    It will get worse.

    The state already is drier than at any time during the past three years of drought, including the devasting 1998 fire season that ravaged more than half a million acres.

    A state emergency team report issued Friday says streams are flowing far under average capacity; in some points, the Withlacoochee River is actually pooling, instead of flowing.

    Nature, experts say, is doing what it hasn't had a chance to do in many years -- clean out its closet.

    "Florida is meant to burn," said Division of Forestry biologist Anne Malatesta, a spokeswoman from the edge of the Polk fire. "It's needed for the environment.

    "But it's been a bad fire because the fire that needs to occur (every three to five years) hasn't," she said. "Some areas here have not had a prescribed fire in 30 years.

    "It's a force for change in Florida's ecosystem."

    Interstate 4 runs over a nest of flammable muck, in some places more than 80 feet thick. Periodic burns create pockets in the muck, which in turn become water collecting ponds that help renourish the land.

    Still, this spring cleaning is playing havoc if you have to live through it.

    The 150 firefighters working at the main burn area had contained 85 percent of it Friday, said Malatesta.

    A smaller fire continued a few miles away in an area where, ironically, timber cut from the fire's path had been hauled.

    Friday's wind blew smoke from the Polk muck fires into Hillsborough County, leaving organizers of this morning's Gasparilla Distance Classic wondering how it might affect the runners.

    "The smoke is a non-issue at this point," race director Susan Harmeling said Friday night. "We'll get up (Saturday) morning and see how things stand then."

    Overnight fog and a temperature inversion were expected to trap smoke close to the ground early today and Sunday, then clearing in the afternoons, said Rick Davis, a National Weather Service forecaster in Ruskin.

    Afternoon winds then will pick up to 15 mph

    Although those winds could fan the fire, they probably will take any smoke away from the Tampa Bay area.

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