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    Fire closes stretch of Suncoast Parkway

    Lightning sparks a 75-acre blaze that jumps the highway and is likely to affect rush-hour commuters this morning.

    [Times photo: Brendan Fitterer]
    Firefighters watch a blaze burn through swampy land along the southbound lanes of the Suncoast Parkway about 8:15 p.m. Tuesday just south of State Road 52.

    By BRADY DENNIS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 16, 2001


    Two lightning strikes were blamed for a wildfire that erupted Tuesday in central Pasco County, shutting down an 8-mile stretch of the Suncoast Parkway and threatening to keep it closed into the morning rush hour.

    The fire came as parts of the drought-stricken North Suncoast got substantial rain, but with the rain came lightning.

    About 3:15 p.m., the two bolts struck within 100 yards of each other on the west side of the parkway, about a mile south of State Road 52, said District Fire Chief Mike Ciccarello.

    photo
    They sparked a fire that grew to 75 acres by nightfall, closing a primary north-south artery for north Suncoast residents traveling to and from the Tampa area.

    Ciccarello said the fire jumped the parkway several times, but crews kept it mainly on the west side. They had the fire mostly confined late Tuesday night, he said.

    Firefighters and Florida Highway Patrol troopers cleared the highway, and no motorists were stranded.

    Authorities decided to keep the road closed through the night and re-evaluate the situation this morning.

    "We understand this is going to be an inconvenience to rush-hour commuters," Ciccarello said, "but public safety is more important than convenience."

    He said the road likely would remain too dangerous throughout the night to reopen it safely.

    "Our experience is that at night, temperatures cool down and the smoke lays down," Ciccarello said. "When the morning comes, the breeze and heat will make the smoke start to disperse after 9 a.m. or so. This is going to be causing problems for some time."

    No structures were threatened by the fire. The state Department of Forestry had three tractors working the fire. Pasco County had 22 firefighters at the scene as well.

    FHP troopers set up flares across the parkway just north of the SR 52 exit. The parkway, which opened Feb. 4, was closed all the way to the State Road 54 exit, 8 miles to the south.

    The evening wind was coming out of the west, blowing smoke east and threatening to cloud up U.S. 41, which runs parallel to the parkway and comes within 3 miles of it.

    It's not the first time this year Florida's wildfires have closed a major highway. In late February, a man burning weeds in his back yard started a 10,000-acre wildfire that shut down Interstate 4 for 10 days.

    The fire was extinguished Feb. 26 only after firefighters constructed a pipeline and flooded the burning mulch.

    In April, a wildfire in Sarasota County closed an 8-mile stretch of Interstate 75 and caused hundreds of people to evacuate their homes.

    The 4,500-acre blaze started when a controlled burn got out of hand.

    Only days later, a 2,000-acre fire near Miami forced officials to close an 18-mile stretch of U.S. 1, the main artery heading into the Florida Keys.

    Seven times this year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has granted disaster aid to Florida to help battle wildfires.

    Through Monday, there have been 2,576 wildfires in Florida this year, burning 187,922 combined acres.

    And the outlook isn't bright. Pasco County's Keetch-Byram Drought Index reading Tuesday registered at 628, well into the extremely dangerous range.

    Meteorologists forecast that it might be August before the state gets any substantial relief from the three-year drought contributing to the wildfires.

    For more information about the road closure or for alternative routes, commuters can called FHP headquarters at (727) 846-1725.

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

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