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Fire, smoke close Interstate 275

Up to 50 acres burn in St. Petersburg, and a helicopter pilot is killed in a crash while battling a blaze in Lee County.


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 5, 2000

Relentless brush fires burned hundreds of acres in the Tampa Bay area Sunday, and one briefly closed Interstate 275.

In Lee County, a state Division of Forestry pilot was killed when a helicopter carrying water to extinguish fires crashed Sunday morning.

Soaring flames from a deliberately set fire scorched 10 to 20 acres west of Interstate 275 in St. Petersburg, producing thick smoke that caused the highway's southbound lanes to be closed at 5 p.m. They reopened about an hour later.

"This is getting frustrating," said Pat Dwyer, a Division of Forestry senior forest ranger. "We've been sent out to this area six times in the last four weeks."

In northeastern Hillsborough County at Twin Rivers Ranch near the Pasco County line, firefighters battled a much larger fire that charred 400 acres and sent a plume of smoke into the air that could be seen and smelled many miles away in Brandon.

"What we need is a good tropical depression to come through and dump about 10 inches of rain on us," said Mike Perry, Division of Forestry supervisor for Hillsborough County. "Until then, we'll be out here every day."

Firefighters tried to keep the 11/2-mile long fire in northeastern Hillsborough from spreading to homes along State Road 39. With Hillsborough County Fire Rescue and the Division of Forestry strapped from days of fighting brush fires, state firefighters called in the artillery: old B-24 and DC-8 Air Force planes retrofitted with 4,000-gallon water tanks.

Perry went up in a Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office helicopter to identify the strike zones, and a smaller spotter plane led the tankers through the thick smoke to make the drops. Thanks to the tankers, Perry said, the fire was pretty much under control by 8 p.m.

Earlier Sunday, Hillsborough County firefighters also battled a muck fire -- or underground fire -in Northdale that had begun Saturday afternoon below the cypress trees in the old bay head just south of Lake Park.

The initial cause of the fire remains undetermined. Officials say it began as a grass fire and consumed nearly 20 acres of woodland near a power plant and the Cypress Meadows apartments before firefighters managed to get it under control.

The heat from the blaze cooked the dried peat below the trees, sending huge plumes of smoke east toward Dale Mabry Highway. On Sunday, 30 firefighters walked the wooded area with hoses in hand and blasted away at random patches of smoking earth.

In southwestern Florida, George A. Burton, 48, was flying the Bell UH-1 Huey model helicopter when it crashed in a field at 10:30 a.m.

No one else was on board the helicopter, which was equipped to carry 200 gallons of water, said Liz Compton, a Florida Department of Agriculture spokeswoman.

"He had dumped the load and was going back to get more water when he crashed," said Compton.

The National Transportation Safety Board and federal aviation officials are investigating the cause of the crash.

The blaze in St. Petersburg was just north of the more than 60 acres that had caught on fire on Memorial Day and closed parts of I-275. On Sunday, about 25 firefighters from Dunedin, Seminole, St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park and the Division of Forestry responded to the fire, which also caused 28th Street N to be closed.

The column of smoke was visible for more than 5 miles on the interstate. There were no reported injuries and no structures were endangered, said St. Petersburg District Chief Jim Wimberly.

The blaze was surrounded by natural and man-made firebreaks that helped to contain the flames. South-to-southeasterly winds pushed the fire toward a large lake next to I-275, Wimberly said.

"The lake has proven to be a natural firebreak for us," Wimberly said.

It took firefighters about 45 minutes to get the brush fire under control but they remained at the scene for hours as Division of Forestry officials deliberately burned the rest of the area's vegetation with the hopes of preventing other fires. Including the acres that were deliberately burned by firefighters, flames scorched 40 to 50 acres in the industrial area on Sunday.

Dwyer said Division of Forestry officials were stationed earlier in the day in the St. Petersburg industrial area that caught on fire Sunday afternoon to monitor a couple of minor flare-ups. As soon as the state firefighters were called to a small blaze in Hillsborough County, the wooded area between I-275 and 28th Street N was ignited.

"Right after we left, somebody came in and set this," Dwyer said.

According to the Division of Forestry Web site, 3,422 fires have burned 120,750 acres since January.

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- Times staff writers Michael Sandler and Angela Moore contributed to this report.

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