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Brush fires close I-275, flare up around Florida

Old and new fires in the desperately dry state torment firefighters all Memorial Day weekend.

[Times photo: Fred Victorin]
A police car patrols near the fire on Gandy Boulevard.

By JOUNICE L. NEALY and CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 30, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Brush fires closed parts of Interstate 275 and Gandy Boulevard on Monday as several agencies battled fires fueled by dry conditions and swirling winds.

The fires scorched about 60 acres, but no buildings or homes were damaged and no one was injured by the blazes, which began about 10:15 a.m. in an industrial area west of I-275 and north of Gandy Boulevard.

The St. Petersburg, Seminole, Largo, Gulfport and Pinellas Park fire departments, the state Division of Forestry, Florida Highway Patrol and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office were called to battle the fires and divert traffic.

photo
[Times photo: Fred Victorin]
Largo firefighter Mike Chrisman backs away from flames that burned about 60 acres.
The FHP reopened all the roads by mid-afternoon but temporarily closed portions of the north and southbound lanes of I-275 when fires reignited later Monday.

Around the state, old fires heated up and new fires were sparked by everything from lightning to lawn mowers. In southeast Hillsborough County, brush fires thought to have been caused by sparks from trains burned nearly 600 acres.

Fire crews in Central and South Florida were kept busy throughout the Memorial Day holiday weekend, according to John Karn, deputy fire chief for the Florida Division of Forestry.

"We anticipate a very busy week," Karn said Monday.

New fires burned 7,000 acres of saw grass south of Lake Okeechobee in Palm Beach County, scorched a pair of mobile homes in Orange County and forced some evacuations in Volusia County. Meanwhile, the fire near North Port in southern Sarasota County, which firefighters believed they had contained last week, escaped again and burned another 700 acres over the weekend.

On Sunday there were so many fires around the state that firefighters ran out of helicopters. The state added two more brought in from other areas Monday, Karn said.

The state also has been using fire crews and equipment from Georgia, sent as part of an assistance agreement among the 12 states in the Southeast.

Florida has requested even more tractors and engine teams from its neighbors, Karn said.

"It's just dry, dry, dry," said Lt. Chris Bengivengo, a spokesman for the St. Petersburg Fire Department. A Division of Forestry helicopter dropped water on land outside the Gandy fire's perimeter to try to prevent other areas from igniting.

photo
[Times photo: AP photo]
A helitanker drops 2,000 gallons of water to wet down the area outside of the fire.
Officials do not know the cause of the blaze, but Bengivengo said brush fires this time of the year are common given the heat and dry conditions. Last week, firefighters battled a 10-acre blaze in the same area, which is often used by people riding motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles, officials said. Sparks from the vehicles sometimes will ignite brush. Police say that the property is private and trespassing is not allowed.

There's only a small chance for relief soon. The National Weather Service forecast calls for a 20 percent chance of rain today. On Gandy Boulevard at I-275, midday traffic slowed to a near halt, as thick smoke billowed and dry trees periodically burst into soaring flames.

Firefighters and motorists watched as the brush fires died in one spot only to reappear minutes later a few hundred feet away.

"It just goes poof, and the tree is gone," said Lad Henzler, one of dozens of spectators who came to watch after seeing smoke in the distance.

Charles Cole, 17, and a friend also drove over to investigate the smoke. He said he arrived before the firefighters and watched the fire hop from the north side of Gandy over an on-ramp and then over the westbound lane into the Gandy median.

"I've seen fires in this area before, but never anything like this," Cole said.

The smoke could be seen for miles away partly because the winds were gusty, about 15 mph. That was both good and bad.

The direction of the wind, coming out of the west, helped corner the fire against the barriers of I-275 and Gandy Boulevard, which are considered fire breaks because the flames will not burn the pavement.

But the gusts also carried some embers across westbound lanes of Gandy Boulevard into the median, where a patch of grass burned. But firefighters were able to extinguish it.

Bengivengo said firefighters also set other small fires to help control the original fire.

St. Petersburg fire Capt. Greg Bush said that ideally firefighters want brush fires to burn themselves out.

[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
Thick smoke limits visibility from the I-275 overpass looking west down Gandy Boulevard.

"You can chase them forever," Bush said. But once a fire has run out of fuel, "it's going to stop burning at that point."

In southeast Hillsborough, firefighters battled two separate brush fires Monday.

Investigators think both fires were caused by sparks from trains headed away from phosphate mines. No one was injured.

The fires were under control by the end of the day. No one was evacuated.

"There were a few houses in close proximity, but they were not being threatened by the fire," said Ray Yeakley, spokesman for Hillsborough County Fire and Rescue.

- Times staff writer Adam C. Smith contributed to this story.

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