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    Smoke billows over traffic, threatens I-4

    Detours could resume as a wildfire consumes muck that was hit by 3 inches of rain last weekend.

    By Times staff and wire reports

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2001

    HAINES CITY -- A 400-acre wildfire set by lightning burned Tuesday, briefly closing Interstate 4, central Florida's main east-west traffic artery, once again.

    A forecast of early morning fog and diminished winds could bring much the same clinging smoke -- and possibly more -- today.

    The highway was closed in February for 10 days by a 10,000-acre fire that toppled cypress trees onto the pavement and spread choking smoke from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.

    And that's not to mention the pain it was to motorists who had to endure detours of up to three hours around a stretch of highway they could have been traversed in less time than it takes to listen to a couple of songs on the car radio.

    This time, the eastbound lanes of Interstate 4 were closed near the intersection with U.S. 27 to allow firefighting bulldozers to get to the scene, said Chris Kintner, spokeswoman for the Florida Division of Forestry's Lakeland District.

    The fire was southwest of the intersection -- near the spring training home of the Kansas City Royals -- about 30 miles southwest of Orlando.

    The Florida Highway Patrol later reopened I-4, and troopers were leading convoys of motorists through the area and preparing to quickly shut the highway down again if needed.

    The forecast for low humidity and diminishing winds threatened to keep the smoke from the slow-burning muck right there until midday today.

    The fire began Monday afternoon and jumped firefighters' containment efforts about 3 p.m. Tuesday, Kintner said. But the blaze was nearly under control about two hours later, she said.

    A helicopter carrying huge buckets of water drenched burning land to keep embers from jumping the highway, Kintner said.

    But water hasn't stop this fire. More than 3 inches of rain fell over the weekend on the area now burning.

    State forest rangers said Tuesday they were shocked that the blaze consumed swamp and brush that had been doused by the weekend's heavy downpour.

    The rain wasn't enough in a region stricken by hard drought for nearly three years.

    "It's only April, and we've got a lightning fire," said Chris Worrell, a state forestry supervisor. "We got 3 inches of rain and here we've got a fire beating us to death."

    The fire is a few miles south of the site of a 10,000-acre blaze that closed 10 miles of the interstate for 10 days in late February.

    The earlier fire was contained Feb. 26 after firefighters constructed a pipeline and flooded the burning mulch. The interstate was reopened to traffic the next day.

    Meanwhile, an outbreak of fires in Brevard County torched 2,000 acres and closed a 20-mile stretch of Interstate 95 between State Roads 512 and 514 for several hours.

    I-95 reopened late Tuesday, Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Pembrook Burrows said.

    Fire officials battled 30 blazes in Brevard County, said John Koehler, the Division of Forestry's Orlando district manager.

    More than a dozen homes were evacuated as the wildfires near Palm Bay and Grant scorched heavy brush and trees and sent ash and smoke into the sky.

    -- Times staff writer Robin Mitchell, the Associated Press and Orlando Sentinel contributed to this report.

    For information

    Motorists may call a toll-free information line established by the Polk County emergency operations to get updates on road closures or detour information. The phone number is 1-866-661-0228.

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