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    Smoke floats in from fiery origin

    The gray cloud, from 150 miles to the north, blankets the bay region, leading many residents to think flames were nearby.

    [Times photo: Carlton Ward Jr.]
    A thick, smoky haze settles over the Howard Frankland.

    By MIKE BRASSFIELD

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2001


    A huge wildfire in a remote North Florida swamp Wednesday sent acrid smoke 150 miles down the Gulf Coast to the Tampa Bay area.

    The smoke was so thick that local 911 centers were swamped with calls from people wanting to report a fire in their neighborhood.

    But the fire was actually in Lafayette County in Florida's Big Bend area. It was burning its way through 10,000 acres of swampland about 35 miles south of Live Oak.

    Several dozen firefighters were tackling the fire with bulldozers and helicopters. They had the blaze about 25 percent contained Wednesday night, said Division of Forestry spokesman Shawn Stewart. No one was evacuated, and no buildings burned.

    Winds pushed the smoke southward.

    "It's very unusual for that smoke to be all the way down here, but it's a big fire," said David Rittenberry, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Ruskin. "It's a narrow little plume of smoke that goes from the bay area northward all the way up to Lafayette County."

    The smoke isn't expected to be a problem today. The winds are expected to be blowing toward the southeast, which would blow smoke from the fire out into the Gulf of Mexico.

    Emergency dispatchers in Pasco County got dozens of calls about the smoke. At one point in the afternoon, firefighters checked for a blaze at U.S. 19 and State Road 52 in Bayonet Point, and even searched with a helicopter, but found no evidence of a local fire.

    In West Pasco, traffic on U.S. 19 slowed as smoke lessened visibility. Signs warned motorists of fog and smoke.

    Elsewhere in Florida, a 1,400-acre wildfire in the Orlando area sent smoke into the Walt Disney World theme parks early Wednesday, but the fire was mostly contained. Theme parks have remained open despite the smoke.

    Fire crews near Pensacola still were trying to put out an 1,100-acre fire. That blaze was 95 percent contained.

    Officials reported no injuries or structural damage in either of those two fires.

    The brush fires have been blamed on Florida's worst drought in decades.

    The South Florida Water Management District said Wednesday that Lake Okeechobee's water level has fallen to an all-time low of 9 feet, despite rains that fell Tuesday and Wednesday near the lake.

    The state is now between 50 and 60 inches below normal over the four-year drought, which again threatens the state's summer crops.

    Farmers are not planting because of the drought, and they are plowing up crops that have already dried up. Fish camp operators are being forced out of business as well.

    Gov. Jeb Bush said FEMA would reimburse the state 70 percent of the overtime costs associated with putting out the wildfires.

    Since Jan. 1, Florida has had more than 2,700 wildfires.

    - Times Staff Writer Tamara Lush contributed to this report, which contains information from The Associated Press.

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