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Florida, Facing Renewed Threat, Battles Wildfires

Associated Press

Gov. Bob Graham, warning that the state again faces the “grim prospect of ravaging wildfires,” dispatched National Guard helicopters Friday to help fight blazes in the Florida Panhandle where more than 20 fires were burning.

Under a state of emergency that has been in effect since May 18, Graham ordered two helicopters, a tanker and personnel from the National Guard to help battle two fires that burned more than 10,000 acres in Madison County and sent an eight-mile-wide plume of smoke wafting across Interstate 10.

“Once again, for the second time within a month, we are faced with the grim prospect of ravaging wildfires,” he said.

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“I want to assure all those who may be affected by this potentially disastrous situation that any state resources needed will be available to them to fight the threat these fires may pose to life and property.”

More than 316 fires, many blamed on arsonists, blackened an estimated 150,000 acres of Florida in May. They finally were doused by heavy rains.

Authorities said more than 20 wildfires flared along a boomerang-shaped 50-mile stretch of the Panhandle in Madison, Taylor and Lafayette counties Friday. Meanwhile, arsonists were blamed for six to eight small fires that broke out in Dixie County.

The Panhandle fires, started Wednesday night by lightning, were burning out of control with no immediate relief in sight.

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Division of Forestry spokesman Larry Amison said Friday that one of the fires had burned 4,000 acres four miles south of Madison and that another had burned 6,000 acres farther south.

Smoke Eight Miles Wide

He said that the blazes produced a stream of smoke eight miles wide that was being pushed north across I-10. He said that the fire itself was within a few miles of the highway Friday afternoon and was headed toward it. Authorities were working out alternate routes for motorists to allow closing of the highway.

Homes and businesses at the intersection of I-10 and State Road 53 in Madison County are in danger, he said.

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“With the ashes and debris they said it looked like a light snowfall,” Amison said.

The northernmost fire forced the evacuation of 15 families on Thursday night but they were able to return to their homes Friday when the wind shifted, Amison said.

3 Firefighters Injured

At least three firefighters suffered heat exhaustion Thursday. Temperatures in northern Florida on Thursday topped 100 degrees and were in the upper 90s Friday.

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The weather forecast offered little hope of relief, with a slim chance of showers.

“We don’t need scattered showers, we need heavy rain,” Amison said. “We’re worried that we won’t get much rain, but we will get more lightning.”

The state was so dry that officials had to carry thousands of dust masks to firefighters battling the blaze.

Heavy thunderstorms on Friday did bring relief elsewhere in the South. Storms roared through Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia, dropping temperatures more than 30 degrees in an hour and cooling off a weeklong heat wave that claimed six lives.

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