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Wildfire smoke closes interstates in Florida

Story Highlights

Dense smoke expected to remain into Sunday morning
Rain expected Sunday afternoon should help
• I-75 closed from Lake City, Florida, to Valdosta, Georgia
• Florida Highway Patrol chief asks drivers to stay away
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(CNN) -- Dense smoke that closed parts of two major interstate highways was expected to keep choking Floridians and traffic until at least midmorning Sunday.

The smoke was generated by huge wildfires burning in northern Florida and southern Georgia.

Interstate 75 remained closed from Valdosta, Georgia, south to Lake City, Florida, said Col. Chris Knight, director of the Florida Highway Patrol. Interstate 10 was closed from Sanderson, Florida, eastward to Live Oak. (Watch a combat veteran doing battle on a different front line Video)

"If you don't have to travel, we simply ask that you don't," Knight advised. "It is gridlock. You will be sitting on the interstate."

Several crashes involving injuries occurred before the freeways were shut down, he said.

The Florida Highway Patrol intermittently reopened sections Saturday afternoon to relieve traffic snarls as some of the smoke cleared. However, the roads remained officially closed.

Traffic from the heavily traveled interstates was being diverted onto alternate routes where visibility was better.

Restaurants, gas stations and other businesses closed in the Lake City area because people couldn't get to them, Knight said.

The fires have scorched at least 212,000 acres, according to the joint information center, a coalition of state and federal agencies. Of those acres, 101,000 were in Florida and about 111,000 were in Georgia.

Officials said Saturday afternoon that although the fires grew some during the day, fire lines were established.

"We'll start showing a little bit more containment tonight," said Mike Quesinberry of Southern Area Incident Management. He predicted the fires would be 10 percent to 15 percent contained by Sunday morning. The Georgia fires were at zero percent containment.

"With time and rain ... we can get these fires suppressed," said Ira Jolley of the Florida Division of Forestry.

Forecasters predicted a 50 percent chance of storms Sunday afternoon with north winds of only 5-10 mph. The chance of showers dropped to 40 percent Sunday night under partly cloudy skies.

Cloudy conditions and fog were expected Sunday morning, which would be bad for traffic but good for firefighters trying to gain the upper hand.

Avoiding fire, smoke

Mandatory evacuations were in place along both sides of U.S. Highway 441 from I-10 north to the Florida-Georgia line. Parts of U.S. 441 were closed on both sides of the state line.

Shelters were open at the Winfield Community Center in Lake City and at Columbia County High School.

David Halstead, chief of the state Emergency Response Team, urged people to stay indoors and use air conditioning to filter the air. He also urged homeowners in the area to clear flammable materials from a 30-foot radius around their homes. (Watch how you can protect yourself from smoke Video)

The fire was approaching the town of Fargo, Georgia, 10 miles north of the state line, officials said. "Extensive structure protection work is being done in Fargo in anticipation of the fire moving closer," the Wildland Fire and Incident report said Saturday.

On the Florida side, the fire was about six miles north of I-10. Authorities were attempting to keep the blaze from jumping the interstate, which would leave nothing but fuel between the flames and Lake City, a town of about 10,000 residents.

Authorities blame a lightning strike for starting the Bugaboo Fire on May 5 in Georgia in the middle of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

Nine outbuildings have been destroyed and one damaged in a hunting camp near Deep Creek in Florida, officials said.

"Red flag warnings" remained in effect Saturday night for Florida's Leon, Jefferson, Hamilton, Suwannee, Gilchrist and Columbia counties, signaling weather conditions conducive to fire.

Minnesota fire destroys 134 structures

In Minnesota, the Ham Lake Fire on the Canadian border had burned more than 52,000 acres and destroyed 134 structures as of Saturday, said Kris Reichenbach, a spokeswoman for that fire's joint information center. (See where else fires are burning)

The fire was 5 percent contained. The cause of the blaze, which began a week ago, remained under investigation, she said.

Sunday's weather was expected to bring more wind and the possibility of thunderstorms, Reichenbach said. Firefighters were trying to prepare for the stronger winds -- and were hoping for the rain.

Meanwhile, in California, firefighters battling a blaze on Catalina Island off the coast said they were making progress Saturday. Fire officials said the 4,200-acre blaze was 41 percent contained by late Saturday afternoon, and they continued to make progress. (Watch residents return to find ruins Video)

A cool, foggy morning also provided some relief, and winds were blowing flames away from the resort community of Avalon.

However, conditions were less favorable on the west side of the island, where a community of 200 is without electricity and phone service.

Catalina Island remained closed to tourists, but is expected to reopen to visitors next week.

More than 700 firefighters were on the scene. Ten structures have been affected, including a home that was destroyed.




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