Weather Change Helps Florida Firefighters

BRADFORD COUNTY, Fla. --

A little bit of rain and much higher humidity blowing in from Subtropical Depression Andrea helped firefighters stop the forward progress of wildfires burning across north Florida and south Georgia.

The Bradford County fire continued to burn for a third straight night on Wednesday, having consumed up to 18,000 acres. Forestry officials said Thursday morning the fire is 25 percent contained.

The fire, which started near Hampton, is the largest of more than 200 fires burning across drought-stricken Florida Forestry.

Firefighters from across the state spread out across Bradford, Alachua and Clay counties to keep the flames in check as best they could, concerned the blaze could spread to Keystone Heights in Clay County.

However, fire crews had a lot of help Wednesday afternoon and evening in the form of damp weather.

"Things are looking very good this evening, and we're very pleased. The little bit of moisture from precipitation was minor, just a trace of rain, but the relative humidity did come up very nicely, and the winds calmed down. Really, the fire behavior this evening has been quite quiet," said Annaleasa Winter of the Division of Forestry.

Crews said the calm, wet weather could help them make progress on the fire on Thursday.

"Hopefully, if we get some good, productive work this evening, we'll be able to increase containment tomorrow," Winter said.

Also, the DOF said the number of people evacuated because of the fire has gone down from 700 to 1,000 to about 500 residents.

Residents along county Road 21B were ordered out of their homes earlier as the wind-blown wildfire moved to within about a mile of Keystone Heights.

The new evacuations were in addition to about 250 Bradford County homes evacuated since Monday.

Clay County firefighters battled a fire near the intersection of state Road 100 and county Road 21B, southwest of Keystone Heights. While SR100 and some smaller roads were closed, no evacuations were ordered and schools in the area remained open.

Superintendent Harry Hatcher said all Bradford County public schools would be open on Thursday, but he recommended that any student with asthma or any other respiratory condition stay home. He said those would receive an excused absence.

Clay County's Emergency Operations Center was at a Level 2 activation to monitor the situation.

State Officials Tour Area Gov. Charlie Crist and other state officials took an aerial look at the Bradford County fire Wednesday afternoon and then told assembled reporters that the state was prepared to deal with more than 200 wildfires currently burning 80,000 acres in Florida.

Governor, State Officals Visit Bradford, Brief Media "We want to make sure it stays away from people. In other parts of the state, we have lost some homes -- that's our greatest concern," Crist said. "People are working hard, and, so far, so good."

Crist said that last Friday, after declaring a state of emergency to activate the National Guard and free up other resources to deal with the drought-driven wildfires, state Emergency Management Chief Craig Fugate joked, "What we need is a hurricane."

"I said, 'Bite your tongue. What we need is a tropical storm.' Guess what, we've got one," Crist said. "I want it to be wet, and I want it to come in here. I want it to come as quick as it can and not have a lot of lightning."

National Guard Gen. John Burnett said there are 11,000 guardsmen "ready to do our state's mission," and 300 are on high alert for firefighting efforts. Burnett said six Blackhawk helicopters are already involved in fire suppression efforts, and more helicopters are on the way.

Crist and the state team were to visit the Flagler County fire and Jacksonville later Wednesday in support of the firefighting efforts.

"There's a lot of acreage on fire -- 80,000 total acres throughout the state and 220 individual fires in Florida today. Just yesterday it was about 210 and 43,000 acres. It's exploded a lot," Crist said.

All But One Home Spared "You could just hear it come from the swamp behind us here. It was just a roar coming. We wouldn't have stayed, but we have the lake behind us," said Ron Blake, whose home was saved by firefighters.

Forestry officials said at least one home was destroyed and many others are being threatened as fire crews struggled to build fire lines around the blaze.

"We steered it by merely catching the fire and putting as much water on it as possible and pushing it down the side of the road," said Clay County Deputy Chief Fred McCutcheon.

Residents in the Griffis Loop area to Batten Road and those in the region between 41st and 47th avenues have been asked to evacuate.

Channel 4's Laura Mazzeo found some residents who did not leave when the evacuation was ordered.

"They came in the afternoon yesterday and told us to evacuate, and my husband said no," resident Sharon Miley said. "Now I did pack me a bag -- it was sitting in the living room, just in case."

The Red Cross has closed shelters in Interlachen and Gainesville by Wednesday evening and shut the shelter at Madison Street Baptist Church in Starke on Thursday morning.

All Bradford schools were to open again Thursday except Hope Christian Academy on state Road 100, which will remain closed the rest of the week as it is being used as a command center for firefighters. Public school officials said any students who have been displaced or cannot make it because of the fire would be excused.

State Road 100 was closed from Keystone Heights to Starke, and state Road 18 and county Road 325 were also closed. Meng Dairy Road was reopened on Tuesday.

Drivers are being asked to avoid the area and take alternate routes if possible.

In addition to a large number of local firefighters and several units from the Division of Forestry, fire departments from as far away as Hillsborough, Pasco, Manatee and Osceola counties sent personnel to help.

"We've got some of the greatest firefighters I've ever seen out here fighting the fire," said Ed Sanders, whose home is at risk.

Forestry officials also praised the local firefighting efforts.

"It's nothing short of combat in the work that they're trying to do to protect structures while our assets are trying to control the perimeter of the incident," Hill said.

For emergency information, call the Bradford County Department of Emergency Management at 904-966-6300.

Governor Addresses State About Wildfires

Crist, members of the Florida Cabinet, Division of Emergency Management Director Craig Fugate and members of the state Emergency Response Team held a press conference Monday at the state Emergency Operations Center regarding the wildfire threat.

Conditions surrounding more than 210 active wildfires in Florida continue to change rapidly. The State Emergency Operations Center has been activated to 24-hour Level 1 operations. Our state resources, including Floridas fire chiefs and National Guard, continue to assist the Division of Forestry in fighting these fires," Crist said.

He said the people of Florida would help prevent further fire outbreaks by using caution and abiding by the following recommendations:

Previous Story:

  • May 9, 2007: More Flee Homes As Bradford Fire Spreads Toward Clay County
  • May 7, 2007: Hundreds Evacuated As 2 Blazes Threaten To Merge

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