The Heat Is Online

Drought, Freeze Fan 1,230 Florida Wildfires

Firefighters battle Florida wildfire

The Associated Press, Feb. 20,2001

A wildfire in central Florida has forced the evacuation of dozens of homes, the closure of part of a key east-west highway and the relocation of some prison inmates.

The wind-driven fire in Polk County had consumed 11,000 acres by early Tuesday. It had also jumped Interstate 4, a heavily traveled route connecting Tampa, Orlando and Daytona Beach. A 10-mile stretch has now been closed.

No injuries were reported and no houses have been damaged. About 30 homes were evacuated in a sparsely populated area near Polk City.

"Because of the swampy area, this fire isn't going to subside for a long while," Gov. Jeb Bush said Monday as ash from the fire swirled around him. "It's got anywhere from 4 to 10 feet of fuel to burn before it reaches the dirt."

"People need to know that most of these fires are manmade, either by arson or human error," Bush said. "I-4 is closed, which has created an incredible hardship for many people, and we've got hundreds of firefighters out there all because of human error."

Some area residents returned to their homes Sunday afternoon after being told to leave Saturday night. Others ignored the evacuation orders, choosing to run sprinklers on top of their homes and in their yards.

The Detroit Tigers, who hold their spring baseball training in Lakeland, had to use alternate routes to get to their practice facility from Haines City hotels.

The Polk County Correctional Institute took 120 inmates with respiratory problems to neighboring jails, authorities said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved a fire suppression grant for Florida's Division of Emergency Management and the Division of Forestry, said Joe Myers, the state's emergency management director.

The grant would recover 70 percent of the costs of fighting the fire in Polk County once local and state fire teams reach $1.5 million in costs, Myers said.

A total of 1,230 fires have scorched 83,150 acres from the beginning of the fire season Jan. 1 through Saturday, according to the division of forestry.

Fire officials say the drought and recent freezes mean conditions for fires igniting are worse than in 1998, when blazes burned 500,000 acres across the state.

Copyright 2001, Associated Press

Florida's tourists' plans go up in smoke

Wildfires burn many acres, close roads to Orlando

The Boston, Feb. 25, 2001

POLK CITY, Fla. - As a thick, odorous smoke rose in the distance, Tim Campbell, a tourist from California, spoke of looking into his 5-year-old son's hopeful eyes, and of breaking some bad news.

''We can't go to Disney World,'' Campbell, 41, told the saddened youngster last week after learning that a series of wildfires had popped up across the area. ''We'll have to go another time.''

The next time might be months away, according to state officials. The drought has spawned wildfires that have scorched thousands of acres, and the officials said that lingering dry weather was expected to continue over several months.

The fire also has closed vital sections of a major interstate highway in central Florida, hampering travel between Orlando and Tampa, and frustrating residents and the season's flock of sun-hungry tourists.

The fire, which began more than a week ago, has burned muck and large trees along the east-west interstate, and has caused the trees to fall onto the roadway.

By yesterday, blazes had charred about 10,500 acres, damaging mobile homes and several sheds, and crews were working to assemble a 3,000-foot pipeline to carry a constant stream of water to the median of Interstate 4.

''It's done quite a bit of damage environmentally,'' said Nigel Baker, a Florida Division of Forestry spokesman. ''It continues to be a big concern to us.''

Forestry officials said late last week that they had contained almost 70 percent of the fire.

But more dry, windy weekend weather is expected to hamper the efforts. A cold front swept through the area on Friday, bringing in low humidity and winds of more than 10 miles per hour.

Another cold front was predicted for the weekend, intensifying the winds. And meteorologists did not expect the fronts to bring the steady rains that are desperately needed.

This is not good news, officials said. They added that winds were the cause of a 300-acre wildfire that started just a quarter-mile from the larger, main blaze.

''This is going to be a rough weekend for us,'' Baker said. ''The lack of rain and strong winds are a big concern for us. And we've already had a really tough week.''

As the fire spread throughout the week, crews spent most of their time clearing burned trees from the interstate as nearby ranchers mended fences and tried to round up their cattle.

This blaze, officials said, which started as an out-of control trash fire, is the state's largest this year. The drought across the state has fanned the fires. A drought index, which measures fire danger and soil moisture, is way below normal.

Since January, 1,300 fires, engulfing 89,000 acres, have been reported in Florida.

''It is bone-dry out there,'' Baker said. ''And we usually don't see these kinds of fires till summer.''

The Division of Forestry, Baker said, is doing what it can to protect residents and tourists from the thick, eye-watering smoke in the area. It has closed off the 10-mile stretch of the interstate.

''A trip that normally would have taken us 40 minutes took us almost three hours,'' said Laura Dabrowski, who came down to visit Walt Disney World from New Jersey.

''We're on vacation, and we're really disappointed it had to be this way,'' she said.

Local tourism officials said they had received a number of calls from tourists such as Dabrowski, who were worried that the fire might interfere with their vacations and asked if they should stay away.

Cypress Gardens, a regional attraction 15 miles from the fire's edge, posted a memo on its Web page and tried to comfort visitors by saying that the park was open and was unaffected by the fires and smoke to the north of it.

But Busch Gardens, an amusement park in Tampa, was not taking any chances, park officials said. The park took precautions and suspended tour-bus operations that bring in visitors from Orlando on day trips.

Campbell, a network administrator who was in town for a family reunion outside Orlando, also said he wanted to take a safe approach with his family, and especially with his young son.

''The smoke is so strong it burns your eyes,'' he said.

''You drive by it for a few minutes and you smell like you were out camping for a few days. Why put yourself through that?'' he said.

Still, officials say, the tourists have continued to come anyway.

''The fires haven't really had that big of an impact,'' said Vicki Isley, a spokeswoman for the Hillsboro County Tourism and Convention Bureau in Tampa, a 30-minute drive from the site of the fires. ''I think people have just made their way around them.''

Residents, who have been forced to become acquainted with a growing number of wildfires since 1998, are still getting adjusted.

''These fires have been major pests,'' said Brenda Ayers, a resident of Lakeland, outside Orlando. ''I just wish they'd go away.''

This story ran on page 6 of the Boston Globe on 2/25/2001.
Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.