CREWS battling fires in north, central Florida; smoke forces temporary road closure

Tuesday, May 29th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MAYO, Fla. (AP) _ Crews battled dozens of brush fires around the state Tuesday, including a blaze that has burned nearly 61,000 acres in north Florida.

The 15-day-old Mallory Swamp fire has charred commercial timberland and swampland in Lafayette and Dixie counties. It was about 35 percent contained early Tuesday, a state Division of Forestry statement said.

More than 420 crew members fought the blaze Monday along with another blaze dubbed the Koon Pond fire, which broke out at 2 p.m. and grew to approximately 1,200 acres. Forty-four National Guardsmen were expected to arrive Tuesday.

Three air tankers, five helicopters and 10 tractors were diverted from the Mallory Swamp fire to attack the Koon Pond blaze, three miles to the northwest.

Peninsular Florida is in the fourth year of its worst drought since record-keeping began. Rainfall is 50 to 60 inches below normal over the four years. As of the holiday weekend, the state had 2,844 wildfires burning across 254,500 acres so far this year, state forestry officials said.

Fire officials advised the public to drive carefully Tuesday morning because a mixture of fog and smoke was likely to cause visibility problems.

An Orlando man, Henry John Pileggi Jr., 43, was killed and at least 10 others injured in multiple wrecks Monday along Interstate 4, with heavy smoke from one or more brush fires possibly a factor in the crashes, officials said. Pileggi's car ran into the back of an 18-wheeler and was struck from behind by another vehicle.

The crashes led the Florida Highway Patrol to temporarily shut down all lanes of the major east-west artery.

The smoke came from an 800-acre blaze in Lake County, north of the crash site, and a 1,200-acre fire in Polk County, to the south.