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Fire crews mop up as rains aim to tease

The drought persists, but a little rain is forecast as firefighters bring blazes under control.

By Times staff and wire reports

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 22, 2001

The drought persists, but a little rain is forecast as firefighters bring blazes under control.

A dash of rain spritzed fires in South Florida on Monday, but it didn't stop the flames there or give much hope anywhere else in the state.

Record dry conditions continued to drive Florida's wildfires, but there was room for optimism as firefighters mopped up 44 blazes and monitored 138 wildfires from Pensacola to the Everglades.

Crews were getting the upper hand against some of the state's larger fires, and rain was forecast for later in the week.

Scattered showers and thundershowers are forecast through this morning, and again in the evening, but nowhere in the state is expected to get more than an inch of rain -- if that. Temperatures are expected, yet again, to climb into the 90s.

Forecasters predicted more rain later in the week as two storm systems were expected to arrive.

"There's a good chance for rain this week," said Division of Forestry spokesman Jim Harrell.

But the drought conditions of the past four years are taking a toll.

Lake Okeechobee is at a record low level -- 9.01 inches and dropping daily. Pumps have been installed in the lake because its flow is half that of normal.

The South Florida Water Management District on Monday begin daily news briefings on drought conditions.

In the Panhandle, thirsty snakes -- thirsty poisonous snakes -- are slithering into people's yards, drainage ditches and retention ponds to slake a thirst.

Visitors to Walt Disney World, the world's top tourist destination, endured a weekend of smoky skies from a nearby 1,300-acre fire. On Monday, the winds shifted and smoke stayed away from the theme parks.

The fire, about 2 miles from the Disney theme parks, was about 70 percent contained.

"It's burning away from the more populated areas, including the theme parks," said John Best, chief of the Reedy Creek Fire Department, Disney's private fire agency. "It's pretty much behaving the way we expected."

Division of Forestry firefighters in Central Florida also battled a small fire in the Big Bend Swamp in Osceola County. A blaze was started in the same area where a 1,000-acre fire burned in February.

"I don't know if this is a new fire, a rekindle or a set fire," said John Koehler, a spokesman for the Division of Forestry in Orlando.

Fire crews in Escambia County had a 1,159-acre fire 95 percent contained.

Elsewhere around the state, a 25,000-acre blaze burned in the Big Cypress National Preserve, and a 6,140-acre fire south of Interstate 75 and east of Golden Gate Estates kept fire crews busy.

The larger fire, which over the weekend forced Interstate 75 to close temporarily, was 80 percent contained.

The smaller fire was 60 percent contained. More than 50 firefighters cut new fire lines and reinforced old ones, said Gerry LaCavera, a spokesman for the Division of Forestry.

"There were some hot spots, but so far we've been able to keep everything inside," LaCavera said.

Gary Arnold, 49, who was second in command at Collier County Emergency Management, died early Sunday from a heart attack. He had led command post operations the night before as firefighters fought the blazes.

Since Jan. 1, Florida has had 2,702 fires with about 198,128 acres burned.

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