Georgia wildfires cover city, area in smoky haze


Smoke from the Georgia fires produces a haze over the sunset as seen over the Harn Museum of Art on Monday evening.

ALLISON DURHAM/Special to The Sun
Published: Tuesday, May 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, May 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

The blanket of smoke that blew in from several wildfires in Georgia on Monday, covering the Gainesville area in a gray haze, should begin to clear today as winds shift, according to officials.

Smoky conditions reached their peak around 10:30 a.m. Monday, as northern winds blew enough smoke into the area to limit visibility to only one and a half miles, according to the National Weather Service. As the day warmed, visibility improved to about three miles.

Local fire officials were kept busy Monday morning as many residents called to report seeing smoke, thinking it originated from fires in the area.

Though the wind was expected to shift today and begin blowing the smoke out of the area, wildfires in Georgia, one of which had consumed almost 80,000 acres by Monday evening, are expected to burn for at least another week, and possibly up to a month or more.

Fire officials are asking residents not to call to report a fire unless they see a column of smoke or actual flames in the coming days. And health officials encourage residents to stay alert should the smoky conditions return.

"You just want to make sure people understand we're going into a long fire season," said Tom Belcuore, the director of the Alachua County Health Department.

Belcuore said anyone with heart or lung problems should be cautious when smoky conditions arise. The young and the elderly can be especially sensitive.

"Stay inside," Belcuore said. "Or if you're going outside, limit the exertion activities you would be doing."

Phil Peterson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Jacksonville, said the smoke from the Georgia fires appeared to affect much of North Florida Monday, including Jacksonville and Daytona Beach. Peterson said conditions will begin to improve today, however.

"It looks like the winds are going to be shifting (Tuesday)," he said. "So that should push the smoke north instead of south. So hopefully areas south of the fire should see a big improvement in visibilities (Tuesday)."

The two main Georgia fires, which started April 16 near Waycross, Ga., by a downed power line, were reported as 64 percent contained Monday. More than 800 fire officials were on scene fighting the combined 78,887-acre fire.

But smaller fires, including a 3,500-acre fire in Atkinson County and a 1,300-acre fire in Brantley County, have made firefighting in the area more difficult.

And no rain is in the immediate forecast to alleviate the extremely dry conditions that have allowed the fires to spread quickly.

Ludie Ehlers with the Florida Division of Forestry said local fire activity has been minimal, with mostly small fires. A few local counties are under burn bans, including Alachua County. Marion County decided to enact a voluntary burn ban on Monday, Ehlers reported.Alice Wallace can be reached at 352-338-3109 or alice.wallace@gvillesun.com.

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