USA — The fiery Interstate 75 crashes in late January that killed 11 and were caused by smoke and fog are on the minds of firefighters and law enforcement as they fight current brush fires and prepare for more.
With this spring and early summer expected to be a busy one for wildfires, fire and law enforcement officials said Thursday that vigilance will be a key component of their efforts to ensure public safety, particularly on the roads.
For the Florida Forest Service, that means dumping as much water as it can onto a fire to minimize smoke, a practice it has been doing for two weeks at the Caribbean Circle blaze in Keystone Heights.
“If you look at how much effort, how much water that we have pumped on this fire, the resources and personnel that are out here we are hitting it as hard as we can to try to minimize the smoke,” said Annaleasa Winter with the Forest Service’s Jacksonville district.
The fire, on Smith Lake off County Road 214 and Monongahela Avenue in southern Clay County, is about 75 percent contained, officials said. Since March 7, a total of 1.1 million gallons of water have been trucked in and pumped onto the fire.
“This is 100 acres of burning muck and the nature of the way muck burns … really produces heavy particulates and heavy smoke.”
A similar fire the ignited in Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park along the southwest side of U.S. 441 on Jan. 28 produced smoke later that night that caused some minor accidents and prompted the closure of I-75 before the smoke and fog cleared off.
But after the highway was reopened, another wave of smoke and fog rolled in. A series of chain-reaction crashes in both directions resulted in the 11 deaths.
The accidents are still under investigation by the Florida Highway Patrol. Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating the crashes and the events leading up to them, including the decision to reopen I-75.
FHP Lt. Jeff Frost said the agency would not talk to The Sun regarding whether any changes are planned for traffic safety during brush fires because of the ongoing investigations.
Alachua County sheriff’s Sgt. Todd Kelly said the interstate crashes showed how important traffic safety is when brush fires are burning in an area.
“That type of tragedy certainly puts it more in the forefront. When you do start to have heavy smoke in an area, the images of I-75 are going to pop in your head. An event like that can trigger a, Man, I know what this can turn into if it’s not addressed pretty quickly,’ ” Kelly said. “If that produces a quicker response or more signage, then maybe that is one good thing that comes out of a tragedy like that.”
This week, the Legislature approved a state budget that includes millions of dollars for electronic signs to be installed over I-75 at Paynes Prairie.
The Sheriff’s Office, the Forest Service, the FHP and the Florida Department of Transportation coordinate traffic safety during wildfires.
Kelly said roads can be blocked fairly quickly for severe smoke by posting deputies on them. But Kelly added it takes additional time to develop an alternate route and to get signage for the route and for smoke warnings.
Forest Service spokeswoman Ludie Bond said seven brush fires are currently burning in the Waccasassa district, which includes Alachua and several neighboring counties.
Gainesville this year has had 2.62 inches of rain, which is 5.97 inches below average. Last year through January and February, Gainesville totaled 7.27 inches of rain.
Phil Peterson, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Jacksonville, said the 90-day forecast is for low rainfall.
“It is indicating that unfortunately the drought conditions are going to continue, which is not very good for the wildfire situation,” Peterson said. “We are transitioning into the warmer season now and we need rain, but it looks like we are going to be persistently dry for the next 90 days.”