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Wildfire reined in; parkway reopens

Only smoldering embers remain, but fire officials say they will keep an eye on the area.

By BRADY DENNIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 18, 2001


Almost 48 hours after two bolts of lightning sparked a 75-acre wildfire that shut down an 8-mile stretch of the Suncoast Parkway, the road reopened Thursday at 2 p.m.

Parkway spokeswoman Joanne Hurley said officials from the state Division of Forestry and the Florida Highway Patrol made the final decision around noon.

"The Division of Forestry checked with its meteorologists in Tallahassee, and they assured us that the conditions would not worsen in the next few days," Hurley said.

"Also, the local DOF thought that they had really contained the smoke and that it wouldn't get any heavier."

From there, FHP troopers began removing the barricades and highway officials began restaffing toll booths.

Meanwhile, firefighters continued working on the charred land. The fire itself was out, except for some smoldering embers in swampy areas. Otherwise, workers kept watering the ashes and made sure to keep the fire's perimeter wet to prevent spreading.

Just because the road has reopened doesn't mean officials won't be keeping a close eye on it. Hurley said road maintenance crews would be on call in case of an emergency. And the barricades would be left nearby in case the road needs to be closed again on short notice.

"We don't expect that to happen, but you have to plan for it," Hurley said. "What we did was hope for the best and plan for the worst."

Officials also decided to reopen most of the road's bike trail Saturday, Hurley said.

She said a 1-mile stretch -- near the Pithlachascotee River bridge -- will remain closed through the weekend so firefighting crews can bring large equipment in and out.

From the looks of the clogged alternative routes, rush hour commuters will be relieved to reclaim their four-lane artery to Tampa.

At one point Thursday there was a 5-mile backup on U.S. 41, from Land O'Lakes High School to State Road 52.

"It shows you how many people are using the parkway," Hurley said. "They will be glad to get back on it."

Wildfires have shut down other Florida highways this year.

In February, a 10,000-acre fire kept Interstate 4 closed for 10 days.

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

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

Pasco County's Keetch-Byran Drought Index reading Thursday stood at 628, well into the extremely dangerous region.

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

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

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