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Pipeline may let I-4 open Monday

With the larger of two fires 93 percent contained, officials are pinning thier hopes on a giant sprinkler system.


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001

The state intends to reopen Interstate 4 in time for Monday morning's rush hour, so crews have put together a giant sprinkler system to flood the highway's smoldering median.

Workers spent an unseasonably warm Saturday unrolling 3,000 feet of PVC pipe for the project. I-4 has been closed for more than a week, and the new plan of attack was necessary because trucks weren't bringing water to the fire fast enough.

"Normally, we'd take some time and let it burn itself out some, but in this situation we can't allow that," said Wayne Jones, a spokesman for the state Division of Forestry. "We'll make sure the muck in that median is put out, dead out."

Two muck fires have scorched nearly 10,500 acres in Polk County. Neither fire gained any ground Saturday. The larger one, a 10,000-acre fire that started nine days ago, was 93 percent contained, forestry officials said.

The firefighters' new weapon is an irrigation pipeline made of sections of 6-inch-wide pipe snaking along the highway median. The plan is to constantly pump water onto the smoldering muck until late tonight.

Officials originally didn't expect to finish the pipeline until today. But once they started building it, they expected to start flooding the median by late Saturday night.

"We're not messing around," said Nigel Baker, another forestry spokesman.

If all goes well, the closed section of I-4 between exits 20 and 23 should be ready for traffic Monday, although only for a few daylight hours.

Jones said officials would wait until the smoke clears in the morning before they reopen I-4, and they'll close it again before smoke further impairs visibility at night.

Firefighters still worry that swirling winds could spark more fires in other parts of Polk County.

"If the wind picks up, we are going to get some spot fires," Baker said.

The weather isn't helping.

Instead of rain, Saturday brought record-setting heat. The high temperature for the Tampa Bay area was 85 degrees, breaking the previous record of 84 degrees set in 1985.

The forecast offers little hope of rain.

"There could be a couple of showers Sunday and maybe the next day, but nothing extraordinary," said National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Sobien. "There's not going to be a lot of rain out there."

- Times staff writer Eric Stirgus contributed to this report, which contains information from The Associated Press.

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