The Heat Is Online

Fires Consume 61,000 Acres in Florida

Rain Cuts Smoke, but Fires Persist Amid Florida Brush

The New York Times, May 31, 2001

The rains have diminished the fires' most noxious problem, thick smoke from burning lakebeds and swamplands that have been dried out by a drought now in its fourth year. The dried mud has been a tar- like fuel, producing smoke that closed major roads, including Interstate 4 across the state, and smothered theme parks, including Walt Disney World.

The smoke was blamed for several crashes. The worst of the accidents was a 20-vehicle pile-up on Sunday that killed a supermarket executive and injured several other people.

Even after the swamps stop burning, they pour out smoke.

"It's like your charcoal grill," said Timothy Crawshaw, a spokesman at the Florida Division of Forestry. "When you get done cooking, it's still smoldering."

Gov. Jeb Bush watched an aerial assault this afternoon on the 61,000- acre Mallory

Swamp fire near Tallahassee, which has been burning for two and one-half weeks. It is the worst of the 20 brush fires still burning.

Since January, there have been 3,000 wildfires, which have burned over 266,000 acres.

Unlike the fires in 1998, which scorched 504,000 acres, this year's blazes have not threatened heavily populated areas. Still, the more remote areas in which they are burning have more people than in the past few years because of development.

"People don't have defensible space between their homes and the wooded area," said Chris Kintner, a Lakeland spokeswoman for the Division of Forestry. "They have homes that are hard to defend, because of the narrow driveways and firefighters can't gain access quickly."

"There are more swamp areas that they've developed," Ms. Kintner added. "They're looking for country living without the realization that Florida woodlands like to burn."

Terrence McElroy, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said, "As Florida has urbanized, it has made our life more complicated."

Mr. McElroy said the terrain had made many of the fires harder to fight. "It is highly volatile and the underbrush and bog make it very difficult to move equipment," he said.

Ground crews have been aided by helicopters and aircraft dropping water. About 500 firefighters, including some from four other states and the National Guard, have dug nearly 100 miles of trenches around this swamp fire, which was sparked by lightning.

Several earlier fires were attributed to arsonists.

The cost of firefighting has run into several million dollars, and federal assistance from the United States Department of Agriculture and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is expected to offset some of those costs.

The National Weather Service has forecast afternoon showers for the rest of the week, and the long-term outlook for rain is expected to help relieve the worsening drought.

"Over the next couple of weeks, it will substantially diminish the wildfire threat," said Andy Devanas, meteorologist for the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

Florida wildfire leads to one death

Blazes across United States mark start to hot season
NBC News and wire reports
, May 28, 2001

Heavy smoke from a wildfire was blamed for two traffic accidents Monday, with at least one death, along Interstate 4 in Florida near Walt Disney World. At the time of the accidents, smoke had reduced visibility on the highway to only a few feet. Fires in the state and out West marked a tense start to the U.S. wildfire season, which could be the worst in decades.

The accidents occurred on I-4, which is a major route to Disney World. The road has been closed while authorities conduct an investigation. It was also one of five Orlando-area highways closed Sunday because of poor visibility due to fog and smoke from an 800-acre fire outside Orlando.

The Florida Division of Forestry said the fire, which was started Saturday by a lightning strike, was about half contained and was not threatening structures. But heavy smoke and light winds socked in a large section of central Florida and forced officials to close the interstate Sunday and divert thousands of holiday travelers.

Other drivers crossed the highway's median strip and headed the other direction, hoping to escape the heavy smoke.

On Sunday afternoon, the smoke had cleared, and the interstate was reopened. Smoke also contributed to a nine-car pileup in Orlando, but no serious injuries were reported.

"The problem was it wasn’t just smoke. It was smoke and early morning fog that mixed at about 6 a.m. and brought visibility down to zero," said Lt. Chuck Williams, a Florida Highway Patrol spokesman. "It’s blanketing central Florida."

SWAMP BLAZE

The Orlando fire was dwarfed by a massive blaze in the Mallory Swamp near the town of Mayo. Authorities said they could not forecast how long it would take to contain the blaze in commercial timberland and swamp. It had already consumed 61,000 acres. About 200 firefighters worked to get it under control, and it was about 25 percent contained.

The 13-day-old fire burned through commercial timberland and swampland in Lafayette and Dixie counties.

"Our fire behavior forecast for today is miserable. The fire is generally in a position to create its own weather and it’s going to display extreme fire behavior," said J.P. Greene, the Forestry Division's aviation manager. "It’s going to be a very hard day out there."

Seven helicopters and four air tankers fought the fire into the night Friday, and about 125 firefighters were on the ground early Saturday, including strike teams from North and South Carolina, workers from timber companies and regional fire departments.

Jim Karels, the Forestry Division's fire chief, hoped thunderstorms predicted for Monday would help control the fire, but he noted that many recent fires were started by lightning, including most of the 19 new wildfires that started Saturday.

Evacuated residents returned home, but authorities were prepared to ask them to leave again, depending on where winds blew the fire. Heavy smoke and the fire’s unpredictability prompted authorities to advise some residents to leave their homes several days ago.

WESTERN FIRES SPREAD

While Florida officials sought to control the blaze, fires in the Western United States marked a tense escalation in this year's fire season. Dry weather in many areas has brought concerns that this year could be even worse than last year's busy fire season.

A Nevada wildfire that has seared through 6,000 acres prompted evacuations Sunday in a resort community about 40 miles northeast of Reno.

Fire information officer Phil Guerrero said a 60-space recreational vehicle park in the town of Sutcliffe on Pyramid Lake’s west shore was evacuated after the fire burned as close as half a mile to it.

The blaze, which was about 40 percent contained Monday, forced the evacuation of about 75 campers and closed Nevada Route 445. No major injuries were reported, but two firefighters suffered minor injuries.

Pyramid Lake was crowded with campers, boaters and anglers out for the Memorial Day holiday weekend. Sutcliffe is the only community along its shoreline.

"The fire at one time was a potential threat to Sutcliffe, but I would say Sutcliffe as of now is going to be OK," Guerrero said late Sunday afternoon.

The blaze wasn’t expected to be fully contained until Wednesday evening.

In Northern California, a forest fire whipped by strong wind charred 2,200 acres just west of the town of Susanville. More than 1,000 firefighters were battling the blaze that broke out Sunday on private timberland. It was about 35 percent contained. The fire has not damaged any homes or other structures, officials said.

In southeastern New Mexico, about 200 firefighters struggled with rugged terrain and hot weather, trying to contain two fires that had burned at least 1,300 acres in the tinder-dry Guadalupe Mountains. High temperatures and low humidity made conditions even worse.

The fires were burning about 10 miles west of Carlsbad Caverns National Park in an area with desert shrubs, grass and pinon and juniper trees. No structures are in the area, and no injuries were reported.

Central Florida fire shuts five highways

The Boston Globe, May 28, 2001

An 800-acre fire in central Florida closed five major Orlando-area highways yesterday and contributed to a nine-car pileup on the Florida Turnpike. No serious injuries were reported.

Meanwhile, more than 200 firefighters were trying to contain a swamp fire in north Florida that has burned nearly 61,000 acres.

A fire that began Saturday near Orlando covered the area in smoke and combined with fog to close highways in Orange and Osceola counties for several hours.

''The problem was it wasn't just smoke, it was smoke and early morning fog that mixed at about 6 a.m. and brought visibility down to zero,'' said Lieutenant Chuck Williams, a Florida Highway Patrol spokesman. ''It's blanketing central Florida.''

Poor visibility also contributed to a nine-car accident in Orlando, but the highway patrol reported no serious injuries.

In north Florida, the 13-day-old Mallory Swamp fire burned through commercial timberland and swampland in Lafayette and Dixie counties. The fire, caused by lightning, was about 50 percent contained.

Evacuated residents returned home, but authorities were prepared to ask them to leave again, depending on where winds blew the fire, said Jim Karels, the state Division of Forestry fire chief.

Karels said thunderstorms predicted for today could help control the fire.

This story ran on page A2 of the Boston Globe on 5/28/2001.