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    Firefighters, winds clear motorists' way

    Interstate 4 travelers get a break, thanks to partial containment and shifting winds. But blazes persist.

    By Times staff and wire reports

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 5, 2001

    HAINES CITY -- A fire that has burned more than 800 acres near Interstate 4 is grudgingly contained, and a shift in the wind today is expected to keep smoke away from the highway.

    Good news for I-4 motorists, perhaps, but ominous for the Tampa Bay area now in its path.

    As Florida settles into April, traditionally the driest month of the year, firefighters were punching at two blazes that this week have shut down two interstate highway for short periods.

    The average rainfall for April, as recorded at Tampa International Airport, is 1.15 inches. So far this month, 6.73 inches of rain has fallen there, but it comes on the heels of a yearlong drought that is the worst since records have been kept.

    In addition to the muck-fueled fire southwest of I-4 and U.S. 27, a 700-acre fire closed a 20-mile stretch of I-95 in Brevard County on Tuesday.

    The eastbound lanes of I-4 near U.S. 27 were closed briefly Tuesday to allow firefighting equipment access. The road stayed open Wednesday.

    Brevard officials offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of an arsonist suspected of setting more than 20 fires near Palm Bay.

    State forester Peter Eales said the Polk County fire is considered to be 65 percent contained within a 900-acre fire line.

    The Florida Highway Patrol had extra troopers on alert and prepared to close the highway if visibility becomes a problem.

    Early morning hours, when smoke can combine with fog to sharply reduce visibility, are the most tenuous. But fog isn't expected today, said Charlie Paxton of the National Weather Service.

    The forecast for Friday and Saturday calls for winds out of the south and southeast at 5 to 10 mph. That would push the smoke back across I-4.

    In February, I-4 was closed for 10 days because of a 10,000-acre fire in the same area.

    - Times Staff Writer Robin Mitchell and The Ledger contributed to this report.

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