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Florida's one big tinderbox

Dry conditions could have much of the state facing wildfires like the one raging across Sarasota County.

[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Interstate 75, which reopened Wednesday morning, had to be shut again as flames leaped across to the other side near North Port. It opened again for rush hour.

By ADAM SMITH, SHELBY OPPEL and ROBIN MITCHELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 18, 2000


NORTH PORT -- Drenched in sweat as another plume of smoke closed in, firefighter Mike Connor lamented the difficulty of putting out fires that have burned 5,000 acres in southern Sarasota County.

"The wind keeps shifting and shifting, and the fuel's so dry, it's really unpredictable," said Nokosi Fire Department Lt. Connor. "You go to one spot, think you've gotten it and then move onto another spot, and the next minute the first fire's going again."

A drought of never-before recorded intensity, high temperatures and a lack of rain have left Florida like kindling awaiting a match.

Late Wednesday, Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency, allowing the Florida National Guard to assist in firefighting duties.

Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford also banned all outdoor burning except for barbecue grilling.

"The danger is just too great right now for any kind of open fire," Crawford said.

The driest spots are Pinellas, Pasco and Citrus counties -- over 700 on a scale of 800.

photo
[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
Sarasota County firefighter Lynn Edmonds, front, works on a hot spot on Interstate 75 just after it was closed Wednesday.

More than 100 firefighters mustered from around the state continued to battle the out-of-control burn that has scorched Sarasota County since Sunday.

No homes were damaged or people injured Wednesday, but the flames ignored firewalls and containment boundaries set by emergency teams. Interstate 75 was reopened by mid-morning, only to be closed again after flames jumped the divided highway. It reopened for rush hour, with huge plumes of smoke rising nearby around Venice and North Port.

"The firefighters are facing high flames, temperatures of a couple of hundred degrees, lots of smoke, shifting winds and an unpredictable spread," said Sarasota County fire Chief Brian Gorski.

Most of the fire in Sarasota County was amid dense pines, palmettos and underbrush, several miles from homes. But even as fire officials watched potentially threatened residential areas, they doubted evacuations would be necessary.

They also doubted the end was near.

"The fire is not under control, and it's not contained. It's up and running," Ty Alexander of the state Division of Forestry said late Wednesday. "Tomorrow we'll start with a new day, with new (fire) lines, new boundaries, and make another stand against it.

With many of the flare-ups deep into the woodlands, firefighters often had little choice but to wait on the side of the road until flames were close enough to attack. Two helicopters and two air tankers periodically dropped hundreds of gallons of water and flame retardant.

The constantly shifting winds kept firefighters revising their assessments of which homes were most vulnerable. Residents in the sparse developments around the fire area anxiously waited updates.

"I think I may have to leave early," Cindy Mullins fretted as she made Blimpie sandwiches a few miles from the emergency command center near North Port. "I've got six horses at home near the fire, and if it gets any closer I'm going to let them lose. They're inside an electric fence now that they won't get near, but if the fire comes, letting them loose is the only way they'll have a chance."

Bush's executive order would allow state, regional and local governmental agencies to place any and all resources under the direction of the state coordinating officer.

The Sarasota County Commission earlier in the day also ordered a state of emergency, giving it the power to order evacuations and apply for federal assistance.

The statewide burning ban forbids burning leaves and trash, building campfires or setting "controlled burns" to clear fire-fueling brush. The ban excludes barbecue grilling, but the grill must not touch the ground.

Similar restrictions already have been adopted in Pasco, Citrus and Hernando counties.

The ban does not affect fireworks sales or displays planned for Memorial Day weekend (May 26-29). Some counties, including Pasco, have banned the use of fireworks within their borders, however.

The state Legislature last year gave the agriculture commissioner the power to ban outdoor burning, but only the governor can declare fireworks off-limits across the state. Bush has not considered a fireworks ban but will monitor the need for one, a spokeswoman said Wednesday.

State officials stopped their own controlled burns last week. The state also suspended burning trees infected with deadly citrus canker in Manatee, Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Crawford said.

"Now, we hope and pray for rain," he said.

That isn't in the immediate forecast.

Today is expected to be sunny, with highs in the upper 80s along the coast and lower 90s inland. A southeast wind about 10 mph is expected to shift onshore along the coast in the afternoon. And no rain. A couple of dozen residents along the Myakka River near Venice heeded the call for a voluntary evacuation Tuesday evening, spending several hours on an I-75 overpass until they felt safe enough to return home.

"I asked the guy how much time we have before we should leave, and he said five or 10 minutes," said Lisa Proper, who watched ashes waft over her house. "It isn't easy to think about what you want to take if your house might not be there when you come home. We grabbed jewelry, cameras, the computers, photos, and the kids each picked a stuffed animal."

On Monday and Tuesday, 161 wildfires occurred across the state, Crawford said. Of them, 83 were sparked by lightning; another 40 were set by arsonists.

Since Jan. 1, about 2,800 wildfires have burned more than 82,000 acres in Florida.

In 1998, summer wildfires raged in all 67 Florida counties, burning 500,000 acres and destroying or damaging 300 homes. Since then, lawmakers have increased funding by more than $20-million for efforts to prevent and fight wildfires, said Terry McElroy, spokesman for the Department of Agriculture.

Each day, state fire officials shift their resources between the areas at greatest risk, McElroy said. Currently, Citrus, Pasco and Pinellas counties are the driest, with drought conditions near desert-like.

"Every day, they're literally deploying (equipment), repositioning it ... it's like a chess game," McElroy said.

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