Fire in Everglades spreads smoke, ash throughout S. Fla.

Darkened skies cause panic among residents

flights to Miami delayed

April 18, 1999|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

MIAMI -- A huge brush fire in the Everglades and a storm that carried too much wind but not enough rain propelled black smoke, white ash, choking fumes and near panic through vast reaches of South Florida yesterday.

A dark veil descended on downtown Miami. Thick deposits of ash covered cars in Plantation, Weston and other suburbs. Shoppers, golfers, tourists and others were suddenly compelled to breathe through handkerchiefs, scarves and other makeshift, hand-held filters.

"The sky darkened and smoke poured down the streets," said Maryann Flanagan, a Pembroke Pines police spokeswoman.

Power failures cascaded through Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale. Emergency rooms reported intensified activity. More than 50 flights were diverted from or delayed at Miami International Airport.

The fire raged out of control late yesterday. No structures were threatened, but police closed Interstate 75 along Alligator Alley last night and said it was likely to remain closed until sometime today.

In downtown Miami, traffic braked suddenly at the beginning of Interstate 95 -- motorists astounded by a wall of smoke that rolled across the city yesterday afternoon. Thousands of drivers illuminated their headlights in what should have been broad daylight.

Desperate for answers and reassurance, hundreds of frightened people called police, fire departments and other authorities.

Broward County Fire Rescue was "pounded" with calls from people concerned that embers would torch drought-parched yards, said spokesman Todd Le-Duc. Firefighters did extinguish some small blazes, he said.

More than 500 calls were logged at the state Division of Forestry's South Florida district office, hundreds more by the Florida Highway Patrol.

The blaze raged north of I-75 and west of U.S. Highway 27, near the Broward-Palm Beach county line. By nightfall, the wall of fire consumed nearly 40,000 acres -- more than 54 square miles of tall saw grass.

"Right now, we don't know what it is going to do," said Wayne Luebe, spokesman for the state Division of Forestry's South Florida district office.

Because the fire is deep in the Everglades, little can be done to fight it, he said, though a dozen people are trying. No one knew how it might have started.

Though no homes or other structures were endangered, according to David Stull, a forestry ranger, several major power lines stood perilously close to the blaze. Florida Power & Light crews spent a vigilant night nearby.

At least five fires also blazed in Miami-Dade County. One, in the southwest part of the county, threatened several structures. Residents of two homes were seen watering down their roofs. Two other fires were contained by nightfall, authorities said.

At the same time, 35 mph gusts from an approaching storm front pushed the wall of smoke from the main Everglades fire south and east -- directly over and through densely populated sections of Broward and Miami-Dade.

"Northeast winds ahead of the storm brought the smoke in from the fires," said Kim Brabander, a National Weather Service meteorologist. "It was pretty fast.

"The winds prior to the showers and thunderstorms had been pretty calm, so as soon as the winds hit the smoke, it just transported that to the metro area."

More smoke could be en route Sunday, Brabander said. The rain did little to ease the drought or green the browned grass.

"The rain was desperately needed, but not many people got the rain," he said.

Today's forecast: No rain, the sun will again bake South Florida, and the winds will return.

"We will have more northwest winds, so all the smoke associated with the fires in the Everglades will still be transported southeast to the metro area," Brabander said.

On Saturday, the smoke quickly lowered visibility below 200 yards at Miami International, affecting more than 50 incoming flights from 3: 10 p.m. to 3: 30 p.m., a spokesman said.

"We had American Airlines put their operations on hold during that period, and other carriers were diverting flights to other airports wherever they could land," said Hernando Vergara, an airport spokesman. "There was no warning whatsoever. It was really bad."

The Florida Highway Patrol closed I-75 at both the Broward and Naples ends, forcing thousands of people to idle away the time in utterly gridlocked traffic. The road was reopened briefly at 5 p.m., then shut again for the duration.

In downtown Miami, a rolling cloud of mist swept down Northeast Second Avenue, toward Miami-Dade Community College's Wolfson Campus, causing heads to turn among thousands of Good Samaritans gathered for the second annual Volunteer Miami street fair.

FPL said 3,350 Broward customers lost electricity for several hours, largely because of the wind.

The Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale areas were most heavily affected, said FPL spokesman Ivan Zevallos. Nearly 2,000 customers lost power in Hollywood alone, primarily along North Dixie Highway and Hollywood Boulevard when a main power line went down.

At least three people came into the Jackson Memorial Hospital emergency room for smoke-related conditions, a hospital administrator said.

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