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Wildfires spread in Florida

BY SUSAN KIM | POLK COUNTY, FL | February 19, 2001

A 10,000-acre wildfire burned out of control Monday, forcing evacuation of 48 homes east of Polk City in central Florida.

Forestry crews were setting "back fires" to try to deprive the blaze of more vegetation. "They're trying to get a line around it," said Jim

Loftus, spokesperson for Florida emergency management. Heavy smoke and debris led to closure of a 15-mile stretch of Interstate 4 Monday.

Inmates from the Polk Correctional Institution also had to be evacuated. No homes have been damaged but as many as 75 could be

threatened, according to reports from Florida emergency management.

The Salvation Army and American Red Cross have been providing food and water for firefighters, and the Red Cross is sheltering evacuees.

Wildfires are easily ignited and spread because Florida is currently experiencing a severe drought. Drought causes low soil moisture levels,

creating ultra-dry brush that catches fires easily. In addition, limited surface water supply is limiting the ability of firefighters to combat blazes.

Since January the state has had 1,232 fires that have burned 83,150 acres. Eleven Florida counties have imposed burn restrictions.

At this time last year, many rivers and lakes maintained sufficient water levels for firefighters to use. But this year many of those same rivers or lakes are dry, near dry, or have levels too low to support helicopter fire fighting operations.

At present, conditions include below-normal precipitation levels, below-normal surface water supplies (rivers, lakes, ponds, and streams), and below-normal groundwater supplies (aquifers).

Florida's winter pastures are under drought stress due to inadequate topsoil moisture throughout much of the state. As a result of poor

pasture conditions, especially in the west central and southwest counties, the constitution of cattle has decreased. Some ranchers reported they are having trouble acquiring hay due to a short supply.

Water officials are reporting that supplies of drinking water and water for industrial use could also grow short. Many counties have already

imposed water restrictions.

The Hillsborough River, the primary water source for the city of Tampa, is experiencing less than 25 percent of normal flow.

When rains follow drought conditions, sinkholes can open up as porous layers of limestone below the surface dissolve and the weight of the

overlying ground becomes too great.

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