May 13, 2009

Wildfires rage across Central Florida

Afternoon thunderstorms were welcome Tuesday in parched Central Florida, but they didn't have enough oomph to put out wildfires scorching thousands of acres of brush in Orange, Volusia and Lake counties.

There's still a 50 percent chance of more rains today, the National Weather Service in Melbourne said Tuesday night, which would add to Tuesday's total of 0.77inches at Orlando International Airport and lend a needed hand to firefighters across the region.

A continuing fire in southeast Volusia County near the Lake Harney Woods subdivision grew to 4,500 acres as flames came dangerously close to a dozen homes and hunting camps. A barn and two sheds were damaged. Residents in the 220-home gated community were not evacuated.

Central Florida residents became more aware of the brush fires this week because of a smoky haze, falling ash and the unmistakable smell of charred wood throughout the region.

Two smaller fires in east Orange County, sparked by lightning strikes during Monday afternoon's showers, consumed more than 1,000 acres and kept fire crews busy Tuesday. Smoke twice forced the temporary closure of State Road 520 near Christmas.

Meanwhile, firefighters in east Lake County gained control of a blaze in the Wekiva area north of S.R. 46. The fire ignited Sunday, threatened homes and grew to about 168 acres, but it was fully contained Tuesday. No homes were lost.

In all, firefighters battled 15 active blazes throughout Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Brevard counties.

The combination of low humidity, high temperatures and the ongoing drought made conditions ripe for wildfires.

Lake, Osceola, Volusia and Polk counties instituted burn bans earlier this year, and Seminole County's ban starts Friday. Orange County does not have a burn ban.

Local and state firefighters continue to work to keep the damage to a minimum in more than a dozen fires across the region, according to the state Division of Forestry.

"It's not a matter of if we have another fire; it's a matter of when," spokesman Timber Weller said. "We will have more fires."

The International Fire, west of Taylor Creek Road and south of State Road 50, had burned about 900 acres by Tuesday afternoon, Division of Forestry spokesman Cliff Frazier said. The Belly Fire, east of Taylor Creek Road and south of S.R. 50, burned about 200 acres.

But new fires aren't the only ones keeping fire crews busy — some have been burning since last month.

The Silo Fire in east Orange County started April 16 and has consumed about 31 acres but refuses to go out, Frazier said. Crews have dug a 100-foot fire line around the smoldering area but have not been able to completely put it out.

"It just won't stay down," Frazier said.

The stubborn Harley Fire between Bithlo and Christmas ignited April18 and has burned an estimated 1,200 acres, Frazier said. Firefighters continue to keep an eye on the blaze for flare-ups.

In Volusia, firefighters cut fire lines and worked to protect homes in the rural Lake Harney Woods neighborhood. County officials encourage residents in all areas to ready their homes for the threat of wildfires by clearing out a 30-foot buffer area around the house to help firefighters protect homes. Fire officials think the blaze was started by power lines Sunday.

Volusia County officials let residents know about evacuation notices via automated phone calls to residents who have publicly listed home phones. Those who don't have home-phone service or wish to have a cell-phone number added to the list can do so by calling 386-254-1500.

Susan Jacobson and Anthony Colarossi of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Bianca Prieto can be reached at or 407-420-5620. Anika Myers Palm can be reached at or 407-420-5022.

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