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Florida fire closes highway, snarls traffic

May 28, 2001
Web posted at: 1:27 p.m. EDT (1727 GMT)

A large smoke plume, as seen by a NASA satellite, rises from a wildfire that has burned over 60,000 acres in northwest Florida  

ORLANDO, Florida (CNN) -- Officials closed a 10-mile portion of a major highway leading to the Disney World resort on Monday after wildfire smoke possibly contributed to five early morning accidents involving 20 vehicles.

One person died in the crashes, police said.

Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Harold Frear said the wrecks were near one another on Interstate 4, about 20 miles west of Disney World.

The fatality occurred in a westbound accident that involved five tractor-trailers, Frear said. Another wreck, also westbound, involved a sheriff's cruiser and four other vehicles. An eastbound accident involved two vehicles.

The highway patrol initially closed both directions of Interstate 4 in Polk County, between Orlando and Tampa. The eastbound portion was closed only briefly and reopened, but the westbound stretch remained closed late Monday morning.

Frear said there are three wildfires in Orange, Polk and Lake counties, not far from the scene of the accidents, and authorities don't know which fire the smoke -- which has since cleared up -- was coming from.

CNN weather forecast for Orlando, Florida

Interstate 4 was one of five Orlando-area highways closed Sunday morning because of low visibility caused by fog and smoke from a fire near Orlando.

Wildfires are burning in other parts of the state, and light rain predicted for this week is not expected to douse them. Chad Myers, CNN meteorologist, said forecasts show "little relief, if any, for most areas where fires are burning."

Firefighters are continuing to battle a major wildfire spreading through more than 60,000 acres in two counties in northwest Florida.

Annaleasa Winter, an information officer with the Division of Forestry, said Monday the Mallory Swamp fire in northwest Florida was about 25 percent contained.

A statement from the Division of Forestry said workers have constructed more than 20 miles of fire lines, but 100 more miles of lines still need to be built.

"The fire lines are holding well," Winter said.

Voluntary evacuations of 300 people in Lafayette and Dixie counties were still in effect.

No structures have been confirmed as lost, Winter said, but the loss to the state's timber industry is now estimated to be $100 million.

Interstate 4 in Polk County was closed after smoke was suspected to have contributed to several auto accidents, at least one of them fatal  

A command post has been set up at the Mayo Correctional Facility to fight the Mallory Swamp fire. Winter said state and federal firefighting units Sunday had been called in to help local firefighters battle the Mallory Swamp blaze.

In all, more than 350 people are fighting the fire, using helicopters and air tankers.

In Lake County, firefighters were battling a 700-acre fire about 30 miles from Orlando in Groveland. A Division of Forestry official said lightning started the fire Saturday in a swamp area. The blaze, located on the north side of Florida Highway 50, has not burned any structures.

The Florida Division of Forestry reported 2,825 fires have burned 254,360 acres in the state since January 1.

Combined with fires tracked separately by federal agencies, more than 302,068 acres have burned in the state since the beginning of the year -- more than half the total acreage scorched nationwide so far this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.



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