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Monstrous swamp fire springs back

Hot and dry weather continues to feed the North Florida fire, as it roars over 60,000 acres.

By CARRIE JOHNSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 28, 2001


Hot and dry weather continues to feed the North Florida fire, as it roars over 60,000 acres.

MAYO -- After a day battling one of the biggest wildfires in state history, Williston firefighter Johnathen Bishop was napping in his company's fire engine when an eerie glow awakened him.

"You know how when the sun goes down and the sky gets half brown, half orange? That's what it looked like," Bishop said.

The unpredictable Mallory Swamp fire, started by a lightning strike on the border of Dixie and Lafayette counties in North Florida, had flared up again.

The outbreak late Saturday increased the 2-week-old fire from 55,000 acres to 60,732. As of Sunday, a fire that had been 50 percent contained was only 25 percent contained.

A drop in the humidity and a change in the wind was all it took to turn a small hot spot into a running, raging wildfire at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, said Greg Dunn, a spokesman for the Florida Division of Forestry. Firefighters were working Sunday with bulldozers and plows to build a new fire line on the west side and keep the blaze contained, he said.

Although the west side of the fire is not near houses, it was still a major setback.

It was especially frustrating to Bishop, a 29-year-old volunteer firefighter who took a week's vacation from his job as a utilities worker to fight the fire, which is burning through swampland and commercial timberland.

"When you come to something like this, you want to know that you've accomplished something, you've put the fire out," said Bishop, who must return to work Tuesday. "Now, I'm just going to have to go home knowing it's still burning."

Firefighters can't seem to catch a break from the weather. It was sunny and dry again Sunday in North Florida, ideal conditions for more hot spots to break out. Winds blew out of the southwest, pushing the fire closer to the populated area.

More hot and dry weather was forecast there for today, although the chance of rain was rising, Dunn said.

Voluntary evacuations were in effect for the area around the fire perimeter, and Dunn urged residents to keep in contact with their local sheriff's departments.

No injuries were reported Sunday.

As the fire grows larger, so does the small army of people gathered to fight it. Command headquarters was moved from the parking lot of Rock Sink Baptist Church into the much larger Mayo Correctional Facility. About 200 firefighters are there, and re-enforcements from the National Guard are expected Tuesday, said Ludie Ehlers, a spokeswoman for the Florida Division of Forestry.

The terrain is very uncooperative: The swamp is dense, boggy and filled with vegetation, difficult to break through with bulldozers. It gets too hot for firefighters to tackle during the day, Ehlers said. Timber losses are estimated at $10-million.

Although most fires quiet down at night, when the temperature cools and the humidity rises, the extremely dry conditions keep the Mallory Swamp fire burning 24 hours a day, Ehlers said.

The blaze, which authorities call the largest single wildfire in Florida since 1985, is the main topic of conversation in this area. Enter any restaurant or store, and chances are someone will be discussing it.

Sharlene Sanders, 31, said she is sick of it. She and her family were told to abandon their home near County Road 349 on Wednesday night and she is tired of moving from place to place.

"If our house burns down, then at least we could start planning to build a new one," she said. "Right now, we don't know which way to go. We're left hanging."

Sanders is also annoyed by the constant smoke, which can transform a sunny day into a hazy one with a shift in the wind. When she returned to her house Sunday, the acrid smell had permeated everything: carpets, curtains, furniture and clothes.

"I've never had so much as a cigarette lit in my house and now everything reeks," she said.

Still, some residents try to stay upbeat. Services went on as usual Sunday morning at Rock Sink Baptist Church, where there was a lot of praying for safety, protection and, most of all, rain.

The Rev. Al LaRoe, pastor of Rock Sink, said the parishioners have a lot for which to be thankful.

"I don't think there's ever been a fire this big where they haven't lost any homes," he said. "It could be much worse."

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