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Tinder-dry FL challenges firefighters

BY PJ HELLER | MIAMI, FL | May 21, 2001

Firefighters in Florida continued Monday to battle about a dozen blazes throughout the tinder-dry state. Wildfires also were reported in Washington state and in Georgia.

Officials in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas were on alert for blazes with fire indices at very high to extreme levels. Officials in Florida were also bracing for more fires in the next three or four weeks as two fronts with increased lightning activity were expected to move into the area.

The largest fire still burning was in Florida's Big Cypress National Preserve west of Miami, where more than 25,000 acres have been charred. A blanket of smoke from that blaze forced the temporary closure of Alligator Alley over the weekend, a major route which cuts across the Everglades and links the east and west coasts between Fort Lauderdale and Naples.

The fire in the 770,000 acre national park was reported to be 80 percent contained. The blaze was believed to have been started by a campfire.

In Collier County the southwest part of the state, fire crews were battling a 7,000 acre blaze in the Fakahatchee Strand (also called the Burnt Flat Prairie). That fire, about 15 percent contained, was threatening several structures.

Another 3,500 acre fire broke out in central Florida, a few miles from Disney World. Smoke drifted into the tourist attraction over the weekend but the theme park remained open. The fire was reported to be about 70 percent contained.

A smaller 300 acre fire in a swampy area in the Panhandle north of Panama City was about 75 percent contained, according to officials.

Ongoing drought conditions in Florida - the worst in the state's history - have been blamed for most of the fires.

"What we're dealing with is the effect of a four-year drought," said Gene Madden, a spokesman for the state Division of Forestry. "There is no immediate relief in sight."'

In Washington, fire erupted a half mile east of Rogersburg, burning some 700 acres. The fire was 80 percent contained.

In southeast Georgia, some 10,000 acres of land were burned by weekend wildfires, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of families. They returned to their homes Sunday.

The biggest fire was near Darien. That 5,000 acre blaze destroyed one home before it was contained.

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