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'A firestorm like I've never seen'

The weather concocts ideal conditions for a fire that drove up to 200 people from their homes and paralyzed traffic on I-75.

By MIKE BRASSFIELD

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 19, 2001


The weather concocts ideal conditions for a fire that drove up to 200 people from their homes and paralyzed traffic on I-75.

A wildfire continued to burn out of control early today in south Sarasota County, forcing scores of residents from their homes, closing an 8-mile stretch of Interstate 75 and scorching more than 4,500 acres.

Authorities fear the problems could worsen today as dryness and wind create ideal conditions for the fire to grow.

The fire, which started when a controlled burn got out of hand, drove as many as 200 people from their homes, destroyed one house and caused massive traffic backups as thousands of cars and trucks were detoured onto U.S. 41.

The evacuees were from subdivisions around the North Port area, endangered when strong winds pushed the fire to the southwest, across I-75.

Winds today are expected to shift to the west or northwest, sending smoke toward the Gulf of Mexico and towns such as Englewood and Venice, and possibly Sarasota.

The fire started Tuesday when the controlled burn got out of hand and charred 3,200 acres of the T. Mabry Carlton Reserve, said Jeff Aaron, Sarasota County's public information officer.

The county authorized the burn to clear 550 acres in the reserve and destroy some of the dry brush that fuels wildfires.

But the weather changed and winds whipped up to 23 mph, fanning the blaze across a 41/2-mile area, Aaron said.

More than 100 firefighters fought the blaze Wednesday as it carved a path to the southwest and crossed I-75, which was shut down between exits 33 and 34 late Wednesday afternoon.

The fire crossed two 100-foot-wide fire breaks and threatened the Woodland Estates and North Port Estates subdivisions, south of I-75.

"This is Black Wednesday," said Chuck Johnston of the Forestry Division.

"A firestorm moved through here like I've never seen."

Evacuated neighbors went out on nearby roads away from the fire to watch the blaze. Residents of Woodland Estates near North Port were asked to evacuate to a shelter at an elementary school.

Tanker planes from the U.S. Forest Service dropped load after load of fire retardant, and helicopters continuously dropped water.

Heavy smoke hampered firefighting efforts as forest rangers aboard tractors tried to plow fire lines through the woods. Flames reached 60 feet high, a sea of orange engulfing largely undeveloped lands.

Panicked residents rushed from their homes with only what they could carry as the flames and smoke blew through the neighborhood at about dinner time.

About 100 horses also were evacuated from the area.

-- The Sarasota Herald Tribune contributed to this report, which contains information from The Associated Press.

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