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    Resilient fire spews smoke all over state

    "It's the biggest single fire I've ever seen,'' one official says of the behemoth that has burned 53,000 pine-laden acres.

    By JULIE HAUSERMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 26, 2001


    "It's the biggest single fire I've ever seen," one official says of the behemoth that has burned 53,000 pine-laden acres.

    OLD TOWN -- The fire that sent hazy smoke through St. Petersburg this week has grown into one of the largest wildfires in recent memory, a conflagration so big and hot that it creates its own weather.

    Shifting with the wind, the fire had burned 53,000 acres in Lafayette and Dixie counties by late Friday, sending smoke as far as Jacksonville and Bradenton. Officials predicted the wind would shift southward, blowing smoke toward the Tampa Bay area.

    "It's the biggest single fire I've ever seen," said Earl Peterson, director of the state's Division of Forestry.

    It is a fearsome sight. Around the fire's edges, the sky is dark as an approaching thunderstorm. In other places, it's an eerie mustard color, with towering plumes of smoke. For miles, smoke settles like fog in the rolling farm fields.

    Peterson said the wildfires that roared through Flagler and Volusia counties in 1998 ultimately consumed more acreage, but they began as separate fires that later joined.

    The fire in Dixie and Lafayette counties, called the Mallory Swamp fire, is burning through dry stands of planted pine that are owned by several large timber companies. It's jumping fire lines, shifting direction and staying hot, even when the night air cools.

    Some 300 homeowners have been told to leave the Hatchbend area of Lafayette County, many of them rousted from their beds at 3 a.m. Friday when the flames got too close.

    The only structures lost are a few chicken houses. Losses to timber companies could be substantial.

    "I think we're very fortunate we're not in a heavy residential area where there are thousands of homes," said Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Bronson, who toured the fire area Friday. "I think the winds have shifted several different times since I've been standing here."

    As the Memorial Day weekend started, highways remained open. The Florida Highway Patrol said it would monitor U.S. 19, U.S. 27 and Interstates 10 and 75 near Lake City through the night for possible closures over the weekend.

    The Mallory Swamp fire was the biggest fire -- and biggest headache -- for firefighters on Friday, but it wasn't the only problem.

    A 1,200-acre blaze in Polk County about 50 miles east of Tampa was 80 percent contained. Residents in 30 homes who were evacuated Thursday evening were allowed back Friday. Officials said lightning sparked the blaze.

    In eastern Hillsborough County, firefighters from Hillsborough and Polk counties and the U.S. Forest Service worked Friday evening to control a 40-acre blaze near State Road 39 and Bruton Road. A few houses and trailers were in the area.

    Crews contained a 1,400-acre fire near Walt Disney World.

    Further south, a cold front that pushed through the state dumped up to 5 inches of rain on Miami-Dade and Broward counties through Friday morning. To prevent local flooding, the South Florida Water Management District drained away 1.3-billion gallons of runoff after South Florida coastal canals filled.

    In the swamps of Dixie and Lafayette counties, though, the fire showed little sign of stopping.

    An army of firefighters -- 300 or more -- has descended on the area, bringing trucks from North and South Carolina and from tiny Florida towns such as Williston and Chassahowitzka.

    It is a tricky fire. Thursday night, when temperatures cooled, firefighters hoped to get ahead of the flames that were roaring through giant timber plantations. Instead, the fire got worse, jumping plowed fire lines and racing ahead for one or two miles.

    It almost doubled in size Friday.

    Four firefighters had to abandon their tractors and were treated and released from Shands Hospital in Live Oak for smoke inhalation. They told other firefighters that the flames turned into a whirlwind, and they all jumped on one tractor to escape.

    "Some of our guys have been fighting fires for 30 years and they say they've never seen anything like it," said Jim Karels, fire chief for the state Division of Forestry.

    Of course, Florida always has had wildfires. Long before the state was covered with houses and roads, fires used to run for weeks -- maybe even months -- through the landscape. The Mallory Swamp fire started with a lightning strike. Today, much can be lost when the flames move toward civilization.

    "It's threatening houses and farms and ranchettes," Karels said.

    As firefighters deep in the woods tried to put out the flames, dozens of people lined the roadsides, worrying that their homes might be consumed.

    "My house is going to get burnt," worried 7-year-old Kevin Anderson, who lives in the fire's path. He and his father loaded their most special possessions in the family pickup. As they drove along, they stopped and gave cold drinks to firefighters.

    Friday, the state set up a command post at the Rock Sink Baptist Church in Old Town. Fire trucks, tankers and emergency vehicles cluttered the parking lot. Firefighters loaded down in heavy suits battled the day's heat. The Salvation Army provided water and meals.

    The hours are long and difficult. Firefighters work in 12-hour shifts. Some sleep in the day at nearby motels and churches or on cots, and attack the flames at night. Helicopters and planes dump water from above. On the ground, firefighters use tractors, shovels, hoses and foam to create a barrier they hope the flames won't cross. They leave the middle of the fire alone; it's too hot.

    "There's certain areas where you can't breathe and you can't see," said Jim Hrapski, a 43-year-old volunteer firefighter from Suwannee County who spent Thursday night trying to protect homes.

    If the heat, smoke and fatigue aren't bad enough, there's another enemy: thousands of biting bugs.

    "Every bug known to man is flying out of that fire," Hrapski said.

    Friday afternoon, while most people were leaving work for the Memorial Day weekend, the firefighters were looking at another long night.

    "We're going to do everything we can to minimize it, protect structures and timber, and then hope it rains, because that's the only thing that's going to put it out," said Karels, the state fire chief.

    - Times staff writer Linda Gibson contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.

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