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Firefighters making gains against vast fire

A fire that has burned 5,570 acres in Sarasota County since a lightning bolt struck a tree last Monday was 75 percent contained early Sunday morning.

"We seem to be doing pretty good on that fire," said Jim Harrell, a state Division of Forestry spokesman.

The fire near North Port was one of at least 29 that burned over the weekend, including 24 new fires Saturday that charred 830 acres, Harrell said. Arson was suspected in 13 of the fires.

A 500-acre fire at the River Ranch Camp in southeast Polk County destroyed several hunting camps, said Division of Forestry spokeswoman Chris Kintner.

"We may have lost as many as 30," she said.

About 200 people were evacuated late Saturday from the camp located about 100 miles east of Tampa, most of them weekend campers. There were no injuries and the fire was contained by Sunday morning.

The fire is believed to have been sparked by an overheated vehicle, Harrell said. At one point it threatened homes in the Indian Lake Estates subdivision, but none were damaged.

In Marion County, an 80-acre fire by the Seven Springs Ranch Airport near Sumter County was fully contained, Harrell said.

A blaze in the Apalachicola National Forest, where 6,680 acres have burned since May 4, was 90 percent contained Sunday. No homes or businesses were threatened.

The fire risk was dangerously high in the Tampa Bay area, where the drought index in Pinellas, Pasco and Citrus counties was over 700 on a scale of 800, with 800 representing desert-like conditions. The rest of the state is above 500, Harrell said.

Officials were also worried about the number of arson fires.

"The real concern is that we might get a fire like what's happening down in the North Port area because of one of these arson fires," Harrell said. "With it as dry as it is, the potential for disaster is a concern."

Firefighters have battled 263 fires that have burned 6,385 acres over the past week. Overall, 2,955 wildfires have blackened 83,497 acres since the beginning of the year.

Because of the hot, dry conditions across Florida, a statewide ban is in place for all outdoor burning, except for barbecue grilling.

"This is the worst part of the year, between now and June," Harrell said.

Last year, 4,400 fires burned 340,000 acres and in 1998, 4,800 fires burned 500,000 acres.

For more information

See the Forest Protection Bureau Web site:

How to help

The Division of Forestry is asking people with information about arson fires to call the Florida Forestry Arson Alert Association hotline at (800) 342-5869.