Firefighters battle blazes across drought-stricken Florida
MIAMI (AP) – Dense smoke from wildfires blanketed parts of Florida Sunday, threatening to close highways but posing little immediate risk to homes or businesses.
”Right now, we’re dealing with 15 large fires around the state,” said Gene Madden, a state Division of Forestry spokesman. ”Smoke is going to be an issue everywhere there’s a fire until we get rains.”
The patchwork of blazes has been spurred by the state’s worst drought on record.
Alligator Alley, the section of Interstate 75 that crosses Florida through the Everglades from Fort Lauderdale to Naples, was reopened Sunday. Smoke from nearby fires had closed it for several hours Saturday.
”What we’re dealing with is the effect of a four-year drought. There is no immediate relief in sight,” Madden said, adding that the weather service predicts ”at least two more months of below-normal rainfall and higher than normal temperatures.”
By Sunday, a week-old blaze in the Big Cypress National Preserve, about 75 miles west of Miami beyond Everglades National Park, had charred 2,500 acres. The fire was only 25 percent contained, down from 30-35 percent the day before.
Smoky haze from that fire blew over greater Miami Friday, then helped shut down I-75 the next day. Another 3,000-acre fire in the region was 95 percent contained.
In the Fakahatchee Strand, a state preserve in southwest Florida, a 12,800-acre fire was just 15 percent contained, due to hard-to-reach swampy, rugged terrain and much underbrush for fuel.
In the Panhandle, north of Panama City, a slow-moving 300-acre fire was 75 percent contained.
”That’s a big ugly swamp, extraordinarily thick. And we need very large, heavy dozers to get through there,” Madden said. ”That’s going to produce smoke for a long time.”
Near Walt Disney World, crews were still battling a 650-acre wildfire just two miles from the Disney resort. It was 50 percent contained, though still a threat to outbuildings such as sheds, barns or pump houses, Madden said.
All area theme parks remained open.
Since Jan. 1, Florida has had 2,679 wildfires, burning about 204,413 acres.
Orlando has received about 18 fewer inches of rain than normal during the last year, while Tallahassee is down 12 inches and Tampa 8 inches, according to the weather service. Jacksonville is about 5 inches below normal.
In southeast Georgia, hundreds of families evacuated because of wildfires returned home Sunday, almost all of them spared by the blazes that consumed about 10,000 acres.
Fire officials said the biggest blaze, involving about 5,000 acres near Darien, was contained but was still smoldering. One home was destroyed, but no one was injured. The fires likely were caused by lightning strikes, a Georgia Forestry Commission staffer said.
Gov. Roy Barnes on Saturday declared a state of emergency in two counties.
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