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Ban on outdoor burning to ease

As rain prompts the lifting of county fireworks bans, state officials expect to lift the burning ban in the Tampa Bay area.

By MIKE BRASSFIELD

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 21, 2000


Five weeks after the state banned outdoor burning, officials are expected to lift the ban today for the Tampa Bay area and much of the rest of Florida.

Most of the state has received much-needed rain over the past two weeks. But the burn ban will continue in parts of northern and central Florida where severe drought conditions still exist.

"We anticipate that we will be rescinding the ban in probably 30 to 31 Florida counties," Terry McElroy, spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture, said Tuesday night. "I believe Pinellas is one of those counties. Everything from the Tampa Bay area south has gotten a fair amount of rain."

Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford is expected to announce the lifting of the ban this morning.

It was Crawford who, on May 17, banned all outdoor burning in Florida except for barbecue grilling. "The danger is just too great right now for any kind of open fire," Crawford said five weeks ago.

Since Jan. 1, more than 4,100 wildfires have scorched 141,000 acres across the state, according to the Florida Division of Forestry.

Now Florida's rainy season has started and the number of wildfires has dropped off.

Only a week ago, the drought index for the Tampa Bay area ranged from 650 to about 750, with a measure of 800 indicating desert-like conditions. On Tuesday, the drought index for Pinellas County had dropped to an average of 514.

The tinder-dry conditions had prompted several local cities and counties to ban the sale and use of fireworks. But one by one, they've been lifting those bans as well.

Pinellas and Hernando counties, as well as Dade City in Pasco County, rescinded fireworks bans Tuesday evening. Pasco and Citrus counties and the city of Zephyrhills had done so on Monday. Hillsborough County lifted its ban last Friday.

Some fireworks companies are suing local governments over the bans. But local officials say recent thunderstorms, and the promise of more to come, caused them to lift fireworks bans.

Weather forecasts call for a 50 percent chance of rain today and Thursday throughout the Tampa Bay area. Scattered afternoon thunderstorms are expected through the rest of this week.

The state Legislature last year gave the agriculture commissioner the power to ban outdoor burning, but only the governor could declare fireworks off-limits across the state. Gov. Jeb Bush decided against a statewide fireworks ban, leaving the matter to individual counties to decide.

-- Times staff writer Edie Gross contributed to this report.

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