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As major fire ebbs, others pop up

A Sarasota County blaze is 90 percent contained, but the drought feeds smaller fires in the Tampa Bay area.

Brute bulldozers and light winds gave firefighters the upper hand Thursday, putting a damper on a hellish wildfire that burned nearly 6,000 acres in south Sarasota County.

By mid-afternoon, fire team leaders were saying they had contained 90 percent of the fire that closed Interstate 75 south of Sarasota several times during the previous two days.

But stronger measures are needed to kill the fire.

"Torrential rain is welcome," said John Teeter, a Sarasota County fire medic. "We'll take it any day of the week."

While firefighters made headway in Sarasota, volatile dryness continued to cause problems in the Tampa Bay area and around the state.

In northern Pinellas County, a suspicious fire Thursday morning scorched 5 acres of vacant land off Klosterman Road. Investigators suspect children playing with matches. Already one of the driest spots in the nation, Pinellas is getting drier every day. On a drought index in which 0 is a swamp and 800 a desert, the county rates 735.

In Hillsborough County, six fire departments pitched in to stop a 35-acre burn off U.S. 301 north of the Hillsborough-Manatee county border. "We were lucky today," Hillsborough Fire Capt. Mike Metcalf said.

Another half-dozen fire units went after a brush fire that brewed near Tampa Palms. "Everything is so horribly dry. Even a cigarette butt flicked out the window of a passing car could set the grass on fire," said Tampa Fire Rescue Capt. Bill Wade.

In northwest Hernando County, a 10-acre fire was put out Thursday morning before it threatened any homes.

Elsewhere in Florida:

A 400- to 600-acre fire believed sparked by lightning was burning in northern Osceola County. Five special tractors and a water-bombing helicopter are fighting it, said Jim Harrell, a Division of Forestry coordinator. No homes or buildings were threatened.

A 1,400-acre fire has broken out on Lykes Brothers property in Glades County. The fire is in a planted pine forest and fire crews seemed to be holding it within lines.

A 15-acre fire in southern Brevard County, near Interstate 95, threatened to cast smoke over the highway.

A fire that has burned more than 6,500 acres in an unpopulated area of the Apalachicola National Forest in the Panhandle was reported more than 50 percent contained Thursday. Officials expect to have the fire fully contained by Saturday.

The Florida National Guard called to active duty 25 soldiers who will report to Camp Blanding this morning. After two days of training, they will be sent to assist Division of Forestry firefighters in mop-up operations near Lake City.

More than 300 Guard soldiers have received forest fire fighting training in the past two years. The first Guard units called to duty this week were two UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter crews based in Lakeland and a refueling team in the Tampa-Sarasota area. They have dumped more than a half-million gallons of water on the Sarasota fire.

In southern Sarasota, Thursday's work meant staying ahead of the winds, which shifted from east to west late in the day, but remained milder than forecast. Eight additional bulldozers were sent into the T. Mabry Carlton Jr. Memorial Reserve by the state to widen already plowed trenches and firewalls from 12 to 14 feet to 30 feet.

"It looks like a worm pattern on the ground," said John Kern, a fire behavior analyst.

Essentially, the tractors and bulldozers are plowing the fire's fuel _ water-starved vegetation _ and turning it over, topping it with soil. Portions of the fire were extinguished with water or smothered by depriving it of oxygen. The flames are 2 to 4 feet high.

No homes were damaged or people injured Thursday "other than a blister or two," said Teeter, the fire medic.

There were no mandatory evacuations, and traffic flowed along Interstate 75 all day.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has agreed to pay 70 percent of the costs above $1.5-million. Forestry officials say they've already spent the money.

Once the fire is contained behind the trenches, it is considered under control, said Teeter.

That means days of dousing hot spots.

State fire officials expect to be busy as long as the drought affecting much of Florida persists.

The forecast across the middle of the state through the weekend remains as it's been most of the week. Mostly sunny, lower 90s, cooler near the coast, light breeze. Rain? Scant chance.

_ Staff writers Katherine Gazella, Bill Serne and Linda Gibson and information from the Associated Press contributed to this report.