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Cool winds whip up
conditions for wildfires

photo
[AP photo]
Smoke rises from a wildfire in the rural Golden Gate Estates area near Naples, Fla., on Monday. The fire began Saturday and continued to challenge firefighters late Monday, sending smoke over parts of East Naples and Marco Island. The spring's cool, dry weather has created ideal conditions for wildfires in much of central and south Florida.  

Florida's midsection is a welcome mat for fire as humidity stays low and rain refuses to fall.

By CURTIS KRUEGER and ROBIN MITCHELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2000


The same dry, cooling winds that have folk throwing open windows for a good spring airing have turned central and southern Florida into a match waiting for a strike.

A dust-dry belt across the state's midriff, stretching from Citrus County in the north and southern Hillsborough in the south, again is prime turf for wildfires, stayed only briefly by sparse rains earlier in the month.

Twelve mid-Florida counties register in the 600 to 700 range of the Keetch-Byram Drought Index that measures soil moisture. The index tops out at 800.

Nationally, Florida is the hot spot, standing out like a rubbed-raw thumb on the U.S. Forest Service's color-coded fire behavior map.

"The danger is very high," said Florida Division of Forestry spokeswoman Chris Kintner, who works in the Lakeland district, which includes Pinellas, Hillsborough and Polk counties. "The humidity for the next few days is supposed to be low, so that adds to the problem."

Brush fires have sparked up in the area, including 600 acres in rural Polk County and 4,000 acres in Collier County over the weekend, but so far serious incidents have been few.

"People are being very patient and very responsible, and that's one of the reasons we've been able to keep the incidents of fire very low in our area," she said.

One of her worries in this region is the number of people who have built homes virtually in the wild. Those homes could be difficult to save if a brush fire gets out of control.

"It's very dangerous for firefighters as well as for those people living there," she said.

Kintner urged people to be careful operating machinery or cars where a spark could light dry grass, and to avoid campfires except in grills or carefully constructed pits.

Just a couple of hours to the south is the latest battleground. Beginning Saturday and still giving firefighters a tough time at sunset Monday, the largest of the current fires gnawed at the edges of the Big Cypress Swamp east of Naples, charring more than 4,000 acres.

Pushed by winds toward the southwest, the fire was carrying smoke over parts of East Naples and Marco Island. Three hunt club buildings were the biggest man-made casualties.

More than 100 firefighters from the Florida Division of Forestry, U.S. Park Service and Collier County fire departments were punching back with controlled burns, bulldozers and aerial water barrages.

The fire burst out of the Picayune Strand State Forest, a motley collection of state-owned land in the midst of an area originally logged for cypress trees in the middle of the last century. In the 1960s, it was a developer's dream -- the 57,000-acre "Golden Gate Estates" -- what was to have been the largest subdivision in America.

Fires burned over the massive system of canals and roads carved through the swampland as neatly as if created with a giant comb in the community that never was.

Since the beginning of the year, more than 2,000 fires, burning more than 52,500 acres of timber, scrub and dried-out wetlands, have sparked throughout the state.

The National Weather Service in Ruskin has reported a sparse 0.11 inches of rain so far in March, a quarter of what's average.

- Information from the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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