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Wildfire in northwest Florida grows again

MAYO, Florida (CNN) -- A major wildfire spreading through more than 60,000 acres in two counties in northwest Florida is growing, the state Division of Forestry said.

Annaleasa Winter, an information officer with the division, said firefighters thought the blaze had been contained by 50 percent, but "last evening, the fire grew from 55,000 to 60,000 acres" and is now only 15 percent contained.

The fire crossed a containment line Saturday night and burned additional acreage. Conditions are expected to worsen late Sunday afternoon as the relative humidity drops, the forestry division said.

"Until it's 100 percent contained," estimates on the fire's containment are "going to keep changing," Winter said.

"It's unpredictable," she said.

CNN weather forecast for Orlando, Florida

The fire in the Mallory Swamp area affecting Lafayette and Dixie counties has resulted in the evacuations of 300 homes in the past few days. Winters said no structures have been confirmed as lost. But the loss to the state's timber industry is now estimated to be $100 million.

Winter said that the Mallory Swamp fire started two weeks ago when a cold front came through the area and lightning struck a tree in one of the swamps. The tree smoldered and burned, causing a 400-acre fire. But the fire soon grew when humidity dropped and winds picked up.

Some thoroughfares shut

Ira Jolly with the state's Forest Protection Bureau called the Mallory Swamp fire "one of the largest ever in the state of Florida."

Smoke from the Mallory Swamp fire and another fire in south Georgia were affecting the air quality in towns as far away as Savannah, Georgia, and Hilton Head Island, South Carolina -- 250 to 300 miles to the northeast.

Poor visibility caused by smoke from wildfires led the Florida Highway Patrol to shut parts of major thoroughfares Sunday in the Orlando area for a few hours. The patrol said the poor visibility has caused a few accidents with minor injuries.

Bill Adams, duty officer at the Division of Forestry in Orlando, believes smoke from the Mallory Swamp fire and a 700-acre wildfire miles away in Groveland could have caused the smoke.

A command post has been set up to fight the Mallory Swamp fire at the Mayo Correctional Facility. Winters said state and federal firefighting units Sunday have been called in to help local firefighters battle the Mallory Swamp blaze. More than 350 people are fighting the fire. Helicopters and air tankers are being used.

More than 2,800 fires in Florida this year

The Florida Division of Forestry reported 2,825 fires 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 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.

Florida's Forest Protection Bureau said more acres of land had been burned so far in 2001 than are normally scorched in an entire year. They cited the ongoing drought in Florida and weather conditions as the major factors in this year's fire season.

"We've been averaging statewide about 20 fires a day easily for the last month," said Timber Weller, a Division of Forestry spokesman said.

Agencies report the fire danger as very high to extreme.



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