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Dry season sends up arson alert

The governor warns that arsonists will be prosecuted as wildfires continue burning around the state.

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 31, 2000


With Florida's wildfire season heating up, Gov. Jeb Bush took a few minutes during his speech about the state budget Tuesday to talk about how the state is like a tinderbox.

"This week it's expected to get worse," he said. "Our focus is the protection of human life and the protection of homes and property. This is a serious, serious issue."

He warned that arsonists would be prosecuted "to the fullest extent of the law."

Of the more than 3,000 fires that have burned the state so far this year, investigators from the Department of Agriculture have decided that 238 were caused by incendiary devices. They have arrested 56 people so far.

For instance, the fire near Gandy Boulevard that closed off Interstate 275 on Monday is being checked for signs that it might have been set deliberately, said Maj. Lou Leinhauser, chief of investigations for the Office of Agricultural Law Enforcement.

Leinhauser said his staff is also investigating several suspicious fires around Withlacoochee State Forest in Hernando and Citrus counties.

Most of the arson cases involve children who were either deliberately trying to start a fire or carelessly playing with matches. But some were set by adults with motives ranging from insurance profit to sexual excitement, Leinhauser said.

Last week state investigators arrested Lenny Yates, 45, of the rural Panhandle hamlet of Holt, and charged him with setting 23 fires in and around Blackwater River State Forest in Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties over more than a year's time.

Arson investigators from the Office of Agricultural Law Enforcement had been keeping Yates under surveillance for several days before his arrest. Lt. Ray Womack caught Yates in the state forest last week and asked to search his car.

Womack found devices for setting fires and a scanner to monitor police activity, Leinhauser said. That led to his arrest on charges of malicious burning of lands.

Yates, who could face five years in prison, gave a variety of motives for the fires, including anger and depression, Leinhauser said.

"The arsons really dropped off after that arrest," Matt Weinell of the state Division of Forestry said.

The state is offering a $5,000 reward for information that leads to an arson arrest and has set up a toll-free tip line at (800) 342-5869.

After three years of below-average rainfall, Florida is so dry right now that anything can touch off a big blaze -- a cigarette, a spark from a passing railroad car or a lawn mower. Soon the state will head into the start of lightning season, which will bring even more blazes and usually not enough rain to quench the flames, Weinell said.

The Memorial Day weekend resulted in 139 new fires, which burned more than 14,000 acres, bringing the tally of scorched earth around the state this year to 109,056 acres.

One fire in Volusia County forced evacuations that brought back memories of the 1998 fires, which prompted the evacuation of the entire county over the Fourth of July weekend. But by the end of the holiday, authorities allowed the residents to return.

New fires are only part of the worry for firefighters. Emergency officials are particularly concerned about the rekindling of old burns they thought were extinguished.

The problem, fire crews say, is that heat-damaged pine needles falling off trees are creating what are essentially tinderbox conditions on the ground.

North-central Florida has become particularly vulnerable. Local and state firefighters Tuesday continued to battle fires in several counties there, including Alachua, Gilchrist, Marion and Putnam.

A 100-acre brush fire near Bradenton forced the closing of Interstate 75 for some time Tuesday, but it had reopened by 5 p.m.

One fire that has frustrated firefighters for several weeks has been burning in southern Sarasota County since a lightning bolt struck a tree. They thought they had it contained last week, but over the weekend it escaped again. The blaze near North Port has scorched nearly 7,000 acres, including about 750 acres on Monday.

In addition to local and state fire crews, Bush has called out some National Guard troops to battle the blazes. Firefighters from Georgia are helping out, and crews from North and South Carolina are on their way south, Weinell said.

-- Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which also includes information from the Associated Press.

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