Looks like it could be a big wildfire season

An aerial view of the Levy Prairie Fire in western Putnam County near Hawthorne is shown on Friday. The fire has flared recently and is causing a large amount of smoke in the area. (Photo courtesy Florida Forest Service)

Published: Friday, January 6, 2012 at 7:42 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 6, 2012 at 7:42 p.m.

For months now, Mary Reidler has been breathing smoke, and she's tired of it.

Reidler lives off Baden Powell Road east of Hawthorne — home of the ever-smoldering Levy Prairie Fire in western Putnam County.

"When you go out, it smells. When you come in, everything smells — your clothes, your hair," Reidler said. "The smoke is so thick, you can stand on our front step in the morning and not see your hand in front of your face."

Unfortunately for Reidler and her neighbors, the Levy Prairie Fire is likely to continue to burn. And residents across North Central Florida may experience similar distress because this winter and spring has the potential to billow into a big wildfire season.

Rick Dolan, operations administrator for the Florida Forest Service Waccasassa district headquartered in Gainesville, said dry conditions have produced plenty of dead vegetation to feed fires. The recent freezes have added to the problem by further drying vegetation while gusty winds can spark up flames.

So big fires such as those that occurred last year in areas such as Lake Lochloosa south of Hawthorne and Little Lake Santa Fe north of Melrose are a strong possibility.

"We are actually drier this year than we were last year," Dolan said. "We're expecting a very active fire season — probably something very similar to what we experienced last year. Unless we start getting some cold fronts with consistent rain, things are not looking real good for us."

The Levy Prairie Fire, also called the Olive Fire, has burned in different spots for months. It is feeding on muck — a thick layer of soil with dead vegetation.

Depending on the wind and other conditions, a pall of smoke is often in the air. In the morning, when it is close to the ground and combined with fog, smoke forces the closure of sections of main commuting byways such as state roads 20 and 21.

From a vantage point overlooking Levy Prairie on a stretch of Baden Powell Road — which arcs from SR 20 northwest to SR 21 near Melrose — the hazy, smoldering ground is visible as the source of a smoke cloud that can be seen from miles away.

At his home nearby, Willie Monroe said the smoke poses a danger to drivers.

"It's affecting the children getting to school. And a lot of the people who live here work over in Gainesville, and sometimes they can't get there in time because of the smoke," Monroe said. "Right now, there is nothing but smoke. One morning I looked out the door, and I couldn't see the automobiles in front of the house. It's rough."

Forest officials said muck fires are particularly difficult to extinguish without heavy rain because of the thickness of the muck.

Equipment used to fight the fires can become mired, and there simply isn't enough staff from various fire departments to work on the blazes.

Dolan said the Levy Prairie Fire has been burning since around Thanksgiving, but other fires in the general vicinity occurred throughout 2011.

"Unfortunately with a fire this size and the amount of muck involved, it's going to take an act of Mother Nature to put it out — maybe the water table coming up and putting it out from underneath," Dolan said. "It's physically impossible to put out 700 or 800 acres of muck. There just isn't enough water, equipment and manpower to do it."

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