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Persistent wildfires exacting human toll
By CRAIG PITTMAN and JOUNICE NEALY
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 6, 2000
Revised, June 19, 2000
Florida's annual battle to quell the statewide spread of wildfires is taking a toll on firefighters.
In recent days, one firefighter was killed in a helicopter crash and a second was left partly paralyzed when a tree fell on him.
The injury and death underscore the increasing degree of danger facing firefighters battling scores of blazes throughout Florida, said Liz Compton, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture. "Any time you're dealing with something over which you have little control, it's dangerous," she said. "You're dealing with Mother Nature."
Last week, a 20-year-old college student in a firefighting operation in Lake County with the National Guard was partly paralyzed when a tree fell on him. Spec. Matthew Moore of Polk County was moved out of intensive care Sunday and remained in stable condition Monday at Orlando Regional Medical Center.
Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board has launched an investigation into the weekend helicopter crash that killed George "Bo" Burton, 48, a longtime pilot for the state Division of Forestry. Burton was dousing a fire in Lee County when his 1960s-era chopper fell from the sky.
NTSB officials said Monday they have no preliminary determination as to the cause, and the Lee County medical examiner's preliminary report found nothing unusual.
Unpredictable wildfires continued Monday to keep Tampa Bay area firefighters hopping.
In Pasco County, more than 250 acres were burned, and two Pasco firefighters were taken to area hospitals for heat exhaustion after 10 hours of firefighting.
In Hudson, flames crept within 10 feet of houses before they were stopped by firefighters. While her neighbors hosed down the back sides of their houses, Peggy D'Orio did the neighborly thing and put out refreshments for the firefighters.
"I wish I had more," D'Orio said. "I wish I had more lunch meat, but I didn't know I was going to have this today."
San Antonio Volunteer Fire Department Chief Troy Newton was asking residents to do something else for firefighters: stop calling.
"We're receiving a lot of calls that are unnecessary," he said. "People are calling to tell us ashes are falling on their car or are falling near their house. We ask that they only call if they visually see a fire approaching their residence or they feel their life is in danger."
State officials are investigating some of the area fires, including those in St. Petersburg that shut down Interstate 275 last week and over the weekend, to see if they are the work of arsonists.
"We've seen a pattern in that general area," said Mark Hebb, the Division of Forestry's district manager. Repeat fires in the same area within a short period of time and an undetermined cause seemed "peculiar," he said. Fires near the Pasco-Hillsborough County line also are under investigation, he said.
On Monday, St. Petersburg and state firefighters were monitoring the area near I-275 and Gandy Boulevard that burned over the weekend. Forty acres burned Sunday and fire officials intentionally set another 28 acres ablaze to control the burn, said St. Petersburg Fire Department Lt. Chris Bengivengo. Across the state, 78 new fires started Sunday, 13 of which appeared to be the work of arsonists, state officials said.
But even more -- 43 -- were blamed on lightning. Division of Forestry officials dispatched spotter planes Monday to check the sites of known lightning strikes and see if there were any fires that had not been spotted, said Jim Harrell, wildfire mitigation coordinator for the state agency.
"Unfortunately we didn't get a lot of rain with that lightning." Fire officials were most concerned Monday about a fire near the town of Waldo that was forcing evacuations. South of Orlando and north of Lake Okeechobee, a series of more than 30 fires were burning about 1,000 acres, which had firefighters hopping. They were also battling a 1,500-acre blaze in northern Osceola County.
Because of numerous fires in recent years, the state Division of Forestry expanded its helicopter operations. Burton, the pilot who was killed Sunday, volunteered last year to relocate from his longtime base in Tallahassee to a new post in Fort Myers, Compton said.
Burton had been a flight instructor for the Army prior to being hired by the state as a pilot in 1991, Compton said. On Sunday morning the father of two was flying a UH-1 Huey built in the 1960s. He had just radioed a ground firefighting unit about a small fire he had spotted, and then dumped 200 gallons of water on a fire near Estero, Compton said. He banked the chopper as if turning, then crashed to the earth.
-- Staff writers Matt Waite and Chase Squires contributed to this story, which contains information from the Associated Press.
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