Raging Blaze Causes Havoc in Florida

A persistent wildfire burned for the fourth consecutive day at the edge of the Everglades Sunday, eating through hundreds of acres, keeping thousands of residents holed up at home and closing -- then opening and closing and opening -- portions of Florida's Turnpike for hours.

At one point, Florida Highway Patrol officials said the highway -- initially shut down about 3:30 p.m. -- would remain closed until 5 a.m. due to the smoke. But just before midnight, troopers reopened the Turnpike even though some small fires could be seen from the side of the road.

Commuters who use the highway are advised nonetheless to check before leaving home today because conditions could change overnight.

A shift in wind direction Sunday afternoon sent billowing smoke -- which had mostly drifted westward toward the Everglades -- east into the densely populated West Miami-Dade suburbs.

It brought visibility on a 10-mile stretch of the Turnpike to near zero, forcing the Florida Highway Patrol to shut it down about 3 p.m. from State Road 836 -- also known as the Dolphin Expressway -- to Okeechobee Road, about 15 miles from downtown Miami.

The highway -- used in that area by an average 79,000 vehicles a day, according to 2003 statistics -- reopened at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, but shut down again between Okeechobeee and Northwest 41st Street about a half hour later. It reopened just before midnight, two FHP duty officers said.

Krome Avenue, which had closed on Saturday, reopened about 6 a.m. Sunday and remained open, said FHP Lt. Julio Pajon.

Though no homes were threatened by the blaze and no injuries were reported by late Sunday, three distinct wildfires started by a lightning storm on Wednesday have burned more than 7,200 acres of sawgrass and shrubs between the turnpike and Krome Avenue, and Tamiami Trail and Okeechobee Road, said Florida Division of Forestry spokesman Bob Rehr.

As of late Sunday, one fire remained -- after one was extinguished and the other two merged -- and was at least 50 percent contained, Rehr said.

''Right now our priority is on controlling the fire. We'll probably have a better handle on it tomorrow morning when we go out and do an assessment,'' he said.

About 30 firefighters -- 15 each from the state and Miami-Dade Fire Rescue -- battled the stubborn blaze that raged on Sunday, located just west of the turnpike from roughly Northwest 41st Street in Doral to NW 106th Street in Hialeah Gardens. They lit more ''counterfires'' -- as they had Friday and Saturday -- to burn up the flames' fuel, Rehr said.

The wind shift caused parts of those cities to become blanketed in smoke Sunday afternoon. But winds changed direction again in the evening and shouldn't be too much of a problem today, said Guy Rader, a forecaster with the National Weather Service.

''The winds probably will die off a bit,'' said Rader, who also forecast a partly sunny sky today with a 30 percent chance of rain.

If that's not enough to douse the flames, the wetness progresses through the week.

''Tuesday it's 40 percent. And Wednesday it's 50. So it gets better,'' he said. ``We'll put that fire out yet.''

Meanwhile Rehr and other fire officials kept advising the very young and the very old, as well as people with respiratory problems, to stay indoors Sunday with air conditioning on -- and recycling the air if possible.

''The air conditioning should be turned to a circulating cycle, rather than having it pull air from the outside in,'' Rehr said.

Rosa P