Overhead battle // 27 more flies are found in Brandon, spraying continues today

Published June 6, 1997|Updated July 6, 2006

The enemy doesn't usually multiply in the middle of a battle. But the enemy isn't usually the Mediterranean fruit fly.

Spraying to rid Hillsborough County of the fruit-destroying pest got off to a flying start Thursday even as 27 more flies were found. The additional flies, found in the southeastern corner of the Brandon spray zone, forced state agriculture officials to extend southward the area designated for treatment with pesticide.

"It's disappointing," said Richard Gaskalla, director of the Department of Agriculture's Division of Plant Industry. "But we caught all of these flies in and around what we know to be a hot spot."

About 1,200 gallons of a pesticide-corn syrup mix was dropped over roughly half the 47-square-mile Brandon spray area Thursday. A helicopter on loan from the Lee County Mosquito Control Department rose off the ground rose off the ground at 6:30 a.m. to begin the spraying, which ended just west of Kingsway Road 12 hours later.

If weather permits, the rest of the Brandon area will be sprayed today, officials say. Spraying in those more populated areas will begin about 8 a.m. to allow children to reach school before it starts. All of the Carrollwood-Tampa treatment area will be sprayed on Saturday using two DC-3 airplanes. Spraying in the treatment areas will continue once a week for at least the next three weeks, Gaskalla said.

As spraying got under way Thursday, the Florida State Fairgrounds was turned into a bug battle station. Maps were tacked up everywhere, and harried state and federal agriculture department officials scurried about. Worried residents called the special medfly hot line at the astonishing rate of several hundred an hour.

"No, medflies don't bite," one of the half-dozen state agriculture officials who answered phone lines told a caller.

Most of the callers had simple questions: Do I live in the spray area? When are they going to spray over my home? Can I let my dog out to do its business?

Only a small fraction of the thousands who called were irate about the spraying, said Calie Jenkins, who worked the phones.

Some had concerns about malathion, the pesticide that is mixed with a syrupy bait to attract and kill the insects. Agriculture department officials have insisted the mix poses no significant threat to humans.

Still, some area residents uncomfortable about the spraying met Thursday in Tampa to explore whether they can ask a federal judge to stop it.

They formed a group, Citizens for Responsible Application of Malathion, and are contemplating a lawsuit even though they don't have the money to finance it or an attorney to handle the case.

Seminole Heights resident Thomas Mealor, a part-time beekeeper and host of Save Our Earth on WMNF-FM, agreed to be a plaintiff in the lawsuit. The group members want to block the spraying because they think waterways protected by the federal Clean Water Act could be polluted.

"We're not asking them to give up their eradication plans," said Rick Martinez, an organic farmer from Tampa and an organizer of the group. "We're just asking them to be responsible."

Agriculture officials said they are being responsible, and they are adamant that Florida's multibillion-dollar citrus industry is gravely threatened by the medfly.

"It's a very devastating pest," said Nolan Lemon, one of the U.S. Agriculture Department officials who have traveled to Florida to help kill the medfly. "It poses a great problem not only for the economy of Florida, but for the economy of the U.S. in general."

Even now, Florida growers are feeling the sting of the medfly. A huge chunk of the Tampa Bay area _ from the Veterans Expressway in the west to the Plant City area _ is under a strict quarantine. No fruit grown inside that area can be shipped out, and roadside fruit customers are being urged not to buy anything that they don't know has been covered with some type of netting.

Along with the quarantine, the spray areas cover two large chunks of the county. The extension of the Brandon zone Thursday added a small area south of the original boundary of Lumsden Road. The new area has a southern border parallel to Ray Road, a western border of John Moore Road and an eastern border of Miller Road.

Three more schools, Mintz, Brooker and Buckhorn elementaries, were added to the list of schools within the spray zone.

Students at those and other schools within the treatment zone were kept inside Thursday, but there was "no great hue and cry" about canceled outdoor events, said spokesman Mark Hart.

To keep the medfly problem from spreading, Lemon said residents who live outside of the two spray areas can call the medfly hot line _ (813) 744-8640 _ if they think fruit in their yards is infested. Residents outside the spray areas who think they have medfly maggots in their fruit also can put the fruit in a plastic bag and take it to the fairgrounds for testing, Lemon said.

Knowing that request could bring in many people who don't have medfly-infested fruit, Lemon offered a simple justification.

"If we don't treat this infestation now, in a few years you won't even be able to pick an orange in Florida," he said.

Gaskalla said he is not worried that other countries will stop accepting fruit exports from Florida.

"If we start getting flies 50 miles away, that would be cause for concern," Gaskalla said.

_ Staff writers Charles Hoskinson and Shelby Oppel contributed to this story.