FIREFIGHTERS still battling blazes across parched Florida

Sunday, May 20th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MIAMI (AP) _ At least nine large fires burned across drought-stricken Florida on Saturday, sending smoke over Disney World and closing down the ``Alligator Alley'' highway _ and there was still no soaking rain in the forecast.

Heavy smoke from several blazes in south Florida forced Interstate 75 _ the ``Alligator Alley'' road _ to close for several hours.

``We're having a lot of fires all over the state _ from the northwest Panhandle all the way down the state to South Florida,'' said Matt Weinell, a Division of Forestry officer in Tallahassee.

The fires burning Saturday included one in central Florida that has sent smoke drifting across Walt Disney World Resort at Orlando since Thursday. The 450-acre blaze, two miles from Disney, was 35 percent contained Saturday.

``It's not threatening anything, just smoking a good bit in the Orlando area,'' Weinell said.

Disney officials said all theme parks would remain open.

The largest wildfire was in the Big Cypress National Preserve, 75 miles west of Miami, has burned 20,800 acres during the past week and was only about 30 to 35 percent contained by Saturday. It spread a smoky haze across the Miami area on Friday.

East of that fire, a blaze in Everglades National Park had burned about 8,000 acres in a remote section of Miami-Dade County but was nearly contained, Weinell said.

In the Fakahatchee Strand, a state preserve in southwest Florida, a 12,800-acre fire reached Picayune State Forest. Other fires burned in forest and swamp land in central Florida and the Panhandle.

``We need something to end this drought,'' Weinell said. ``We'd like to see the hurricane season start, and get some tropical depressions in here.''

The Atlantic hurricane season runs June 1 through Nov. 30.

Monday ``is on average the start of the rainy season in South Florida,'' said Wayne Colin, a weather service meteorologist in Miami. ``We are forecasting rain for the middle through the later part of next week, but the confidence level here is not very high that will actually happen.''

Since Jan. 1, 2,648 wildfires have charred nearly 194,000 acres in Florida.

In Georgia, Gov. Roy Barnes declared a state of emergency in two counties where wildfires have burned about 5,000 acres. The fire had been contained Saturday.