- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 9, 2006

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — A quarter-inch of rain brought little relief to firefighters battling about 50 wildfires in parched central Florida yesterday, and smoke from the fires was blamed for auto accidents that killed four persons.

Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency and called in the Florida National Guard to help fight wildfires that have burned thousands of acres and blanketed highways with thick smoke.

Three homes and several outdoor structures have been destroyed in the fires that started April 21, but no homes were in immediate danger yesterday.

“That rain is going to be dried up. We didn’t get much,” said Timber Weller, a specialist with the Florida Division of Forestry. “By the end of today, most of that water will have evaporated between the sun and the winds.”

Thick black smoke mixed with morning fog has caused dozens of car accidents. Parts of Interstate 95 and the Beachline Expressway, which runs from Orlando to the Atlantic coast, will be closed to morning traffic until further notice, officials said.

“Obviously the people need to be real careful, careful about starting fires, be careful about not throwing used cigarettes out,” President Bush said yesterday during a visit to the state. “They need to be mindful that these are dangerous conditions.”

Although the rain was welcomed, officials worried that lightning could spark more fires.

“We still have significant wildfire conditions and need a tremendous amount of rain to get back to normal levels,” New Smyrna Beach spokeswoman Shannon Lewis said.

The governor declared a state of emergency Monday night, deploying aviation units from the Florida National Guard. He also met with some of the 155 firefighters working to contain a fire in New Smyrna Beach that has consumed about 1,300 acres since Sunday.

“We are a tinder box right now,” Gov. Bush said. “We had a little bit of rain but not enough to give people assurances that we are not going to have more fires.”

The governor said many of the fires likely started with either human negligence or malevolence.

About 1,000 residents were ordered to evacuate Sunday in New Smyrna Beach as the fire approached. Avia Toney was relieved Monday to find her house had been spared. She fled the neighborhood only when she saw fire approaching through the woods across a nearby golf course.

“It was right at the edge of the woods,” she said. “Ashes were falling. It was black and ugly.”

More than 2,200 wildfires have burned over 44,000 acres in Florida since Jan. 1, according to the state Division of Forestry.

“These fires are consuming everything,” said Jim Brenner, the division’s fire management administrator. “And it’s not over by any stretch of the imagination.”

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