New fire ignites in Florida

BY SUSAN KIM | POLK COUNTY, FL | February 23, 2001


A new 300-acre fire broke out in central Florida Thursday three miles south of a larger 10,000-acre blaze. The new fire ignited in a logging pile south of Interstate 4 just as an approaching cold front brought winds that threatened to whip up the flames.

Smoke from both fires continued to hang over Interstate 4 and also over residents' homes, causing problems for people with respiratory problems.

Fire crews were not sure if they could take heavy equipment into the new fire's path because it is burning in such a swampy area.

The winds could also pick up burning embers and hot ash from the larger fire, and carry them over the fire line into the thick dry brush that

covers the area.

The Rev. Dewayne Murrell, associate pastor at the First Baptist Church of Polk City, said the 10,000-acre fire burned up to the back of his 3-acre lot while his family was evacuated. "It singed some of our trees," he said.

Though the family is now back in their home, Murrell's six-year-old son, who has allergies that are aggravated by the smoke, is spending

nights with his grandmother 15 miles away.

The family was able to hear evacuation information through an automated phone message coordinated by the Polk City sheriff's department,

Murell said.

Volunteer crews from The Salvation Army are taking food and water to firefighters. Cindy Xanders, a board member of Florida Interfaiths

Networking in Disaster (FIND), cautioned people not to try to deliver food and water to firefighters directly but instead to work with Salvation Army or other crews that have been trained in how to safely approach fire lines.

Rural Polk County is currently one of Florida's driest areas. "It's a tinder box," said Kevin Smith, disaster response director for The Salvation Army in Florida. "The entire area could just go up."

Many families work for the state correctional facility located near Polk City.

Xanders said that one of the biggest problems has stemmed from a lack of media coverage. "There's no information out there, and people can't

easily get information about evacuations or about other people's needs," she said.

Even though no homes have been destroyed yet, evacuees are likely to be undergoing emotional stress, she added. "Not being able to sleep at

night, not being able to concentrate on the job, having crying fits -- all are symptoms of emotional stress that evacuees can suffer even if they don't lose their house."

Some insurance companies have offered to cover carpet and furniture cleaning to get rid of the smoke smell, she said.

Authorities reported that the larger blaze -- the Green Swamp fire -- began with ashes from an illegal trash fire. A resident now faces

misdemeanor charges for improper burning.

No matter how much information emergency officials distribute, people seem to still violate burn bans, said Xanders. "It has to burn their

house down before they'll stop."

Chris Kintner, spokesperson for the Florida Division of Forestry added, "everybody thinks they can control it because they have a water hose

there."

Although the Green Swamp fire was 70 percent contained Friday, "the weather is throwing us another curve," said Kintner.

Muck fires like the Green Swamp fire are notoriously hard to contain because often they continue to burn undetected underground.

Residents have been allowed back in their homes but many have been told to evacuate again at a moment's notice. No homes have been damaged and no residents have been injured.

But the smoke is bothering those with allergies, asthma, and other respiratory problems. "I have received an alert from our county emergency management requesting that everyone remain indoors with the doors and windows closed and the air conditioning on. They are most

concerned about those with respiratory problems," said Jody Hill, executive director FIND.

A group of Florida state emergency management officials traveled to Washington, DC Friday to meet with the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Catastrophic Disaster Response Group. State officials will brief FEMA on what steps have been taken so far to cope with three years of drought - the worst in 100 years, said Jim Loftus, spokesperson for the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

FEMA authorized federal funds this week to help the state fight fires. Since January, fires in Lakeland, Caloosahatchee, and Okeechobee have

endangered 900 homes and have forced the evacuation of more than 1,000 people in a 12-county area.

The state of 16 million people is so dry that extreme fire hazard stretches in central Florida from Lake County south to Collier County from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean and through a 10-county area to the north and east of Gainesville.

The State has seen rainfall amounts dramatically decrease since the onset of La Niņa, an abnormal cooling of the waters in the eastern Pacific, in early 1998.

Since January, the state has had 1,300 fires that have consumed 89,000 acres. Extreme fire hazards are expected to remain until Florida's

summer rainy season. "The fires will burden us throughout the spring and summer until the rains come -- if they do this year," said Hill. "I'm afraid this is just a 'heads-up' of what we'll face throughout the coming months."


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