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Weather, firefighters allied against wildfire

By ROBIN MITCHELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 13, 2000


Invigorated by fresh reinforcements and a unified command structure, firefighters vigorously struck back Wednesday at a massive wildfire with an innocuous name -- the Merritt Boulevard Incident.

More than 175 firefighters, an armada of bulldozers, 74 fire engines and two Florida National Guard Blackhawk helicopters toting water struck hard at a fire that in four days has burned more than 15,400 acres just east of Naples in Collier County.

By midday, firefighters had a powerful ally -- the weather. The dew point, which has been hovering in the talc-dry 40 to 50 percent range, began climbing. Coupled with cloud cover and a breeze off the Gulf of Mexico, nature eased off fueling the fire.

Today's forecast is for a 50 to 60 percent chance of showers in late morning and early afternoon, said Ron Morales, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Ruskin.

"But how widespread and long those showers will be is a tough call," said Morales. "But it can't hurt."

Elsewhere in Central Florida, fire crews were putting final stomps on Tuesday's leftovers: 10 acres in eastern Hillsborough County, 140 acres between Mulberry and Bartow in Polk and a hellzapoppin' 90-acre burn south of Lee County's Fort Myers that threatened businesses and homes when exploding sap-laden melaleuca or punk trees hurled incendiary chunks up to a half-mile away.

The giant fire between Naples of the Big Cypress Swamp, over terrain once platted for a massive new city, has been fought on land even far-fetched for a Star Wars movie.

"It's a bad as any," said George Cooper, the state Division of Forestry's resource manager. "The ground is pinnacle and cathedral rock, growing in spires like stalagmites in caves.

"It's been wearing on us," he said. "It's like driving a crawler tractor on rock spires, shaking the equipment and operator."

Efforts Wednesday concentrated on keeping the fire south of Interstate 75, east of State Road 951 and north of U.S. 41. A westerly wind forced the fire back into the roughly 4- by 8-mile area it had already burned, an envelope in which firefighters hope it would burn itself out.

There have been no injuries, save for a firefighter's heat exhaustion, and minimal structural destruction. Three hunting camp trailers and one brush truck are the more serious losses. In Lee County, fires licked close enough to mobile homes to melt window caulking and bubble paint, but not much more.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency on Wednesday approved the state's request for aid and will pay 70 percent of the state's eligible firefighting costs above $1.5-million.

Residents of nearby subdivisions were advised to evacuate an area northeast of Naples. Although the fire remained miles from homes, smoke and ash remained a hazard. Lely Elementary School and Edison Community College were closed Wednesday.

Fire coordinators used satellite images Wednesday to refine their count of homes in the sparsely populated area.

Through Monday, 1,196 wildfires have burned 52,463 acres in Florida this year.

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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