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    Drought brings fires, tougher water limits

    By MIKE BRASSFIELD

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 7, 2000


    Without another half-inch of rain, the year 2000 will go down as the Tampa Bay area's driest since rainfall totals were first recorded in 1890.

    The second consecutive year of drought not only is turning Florida into a land of brown lawns, burning swamps and dried-up lakes, it's bringing an early start to the wildfire season.

    Smoke from a 450-acre muck fire caused 11 accidents Wednesday on Interstate 75 near Lake Panasoffkee, killing a Zephyrhills trucker and closing the interstate for hours.

    Forecasters fear that Florida wildfires, which have wreaked havoc the past couple years, will get worse before they get better.

    "We're quite concerned about the upcoming year. We already have a fairly high number of fires for this time of year," said J.P. Greene, who oversees firefighting aircraft for the state Forestry Division.

    The Tampa Bay area has received 28.46 inches of rain so far this year, about 15 inches below normal.

    The area's driest year on record is 1956, when it received only 28.89 inches of rain.

    "We're about half an inch below the driest year ever," said Sanford Garrard, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Ruskin. "Typically, we do get about 2 inches of rain in December. But it's too close to call right now."

    Little or no rain is expected this week. In fact, the National Weather Service is forecasting drier than normal weather for the next three months.

    The two-year drought has been caused partly by the La Nina weather phenomenon, which is no longer a factor. Forecasters are hopeful that rainfall levels will return to normal next year.

    In the meantime, brush fires are already beginning to flare up.

    "We've been running 10 to 30 fires a day," said Greene of the state Forestry Division.

    On Wednesday morning, a wall of white smoke enveloped I-75, reducing visibility to zero and causing 11 crashes, one of which killed truck driver Robert Weatherington, 69, of Zephyrhills.

    By the time the haze lifted, the wreckage of several vehicles lay strewn along the highway near the Bushnell exit, forcing officials to close the interstate as rescue workers tended to the injured.

    The smoke came from a fire that has burned since Saturday in a marsh called Jumper Creek Swamp, 4 miles west of I-75.

    "Most of the swamps are dry, and we anticipate a very, very busy fire season," said Chris Kintner of the forestry district that covers Pinellas, Hillsborough and Polk counties.

    Fire officials are also worried about the possibility of a cold winter and hard freezes throughout the state. Freezing weather kills plants, and dead vegetation burns quite well.

    "If we get a South Florida freeze, it's going to be off to the races," Greene said.

    Regional water regulators already are preparing a recommendation that would ban most outdoor uses of water -- probably lawn watering, car washing and swimming pool filling.

    They also are considering fines on businesses, ranches, farms, homeowners associations and public utilities that systematically violate permits for pumping groundwater.

    It would take the threat of almost certain disaster for elected officials to take the unpopular step of banning all outdoor watering. But if the Southwest Florida Water Management District decides it's necessary and local governments won't take the necessary steps, the agency might impose its will.

    Said Swiftmud spokesman Michael Molligan: "Rivers are at record lows for this time of year, the aquifer is at record lows for this time of year, lakes are down several feet, and we're going into dry season."

    - Staff writers Jamie Malernee and Jean Heller contributed to this report.

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