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Fires eat thousands of acres, rain no help

Almost 3,000 wildfires have burned nearly 84,000 acres since the beginning of the year.

Scattered rain in northeast Florida and heavier showers in south Florida did little to ease the drought or put out wildfires around the state Monday.

A dozen Florida National Guard firefighters were sent to Sarasota on Monday to help fight a fire that has burned 5,480 acres in Sarasota County since a lightning bolt struck a tree May 14. That fire now is 85 percent contained.

National Guard UH-60 helicopters last week helped firefighters on the ground by dumping water on the blaze. Other Guard firefighters are working near Lake City.

Elsewhere in the state, a wildfire swept though a southeastern Polk County hunting camp and destroyed 113 structures, officials said Monday.

A few of the buildings lost at the River Ranch Camp in the Sunday fire were mobile homes or modest wood frame structures lived in year-round, said spokesman Jim Harrell of the Division of Forestry. But most were rustic structures, such as lean-tos and sheds visited only occasionally, he said.

The fire apparently started when an overheated vehicle ignited dry brush, Harrell said. Damage was estimated at $262,000 but no injuries were reported.

The fire burned about 500 acres before being extinguished by state fire crews. At one point, it threatened to spread into Indian Lake Estates, but the flames were kept away from that subdivision, Harrell said.

The camp is in a wilderness area west of the Kissimmee River in southeastern Polk County, near the northern edge of the Air Force's Avon Park Bombing Range.

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

A blaze in the Apalachicola National Forest, where 6,680 acres have burned since May 4, was 90 percent contained.

There were 30 other wildfires around the state Sunday that burned 634 acres, Harrell said.

The fire risk is dangerously high in the Tampa Bay area, where the drought index in Pinellas, Pasco and Citrus counties is more than 700 on a scale of 800, with 800 representing desert-like conditions.

Officials also were worried about the number of arson fires.

"With it as dry as it is, the potential for disaster is a concern," said Harrell.

Overall, nearly 3,000 wildfires have blackened almost 84,000 acres since Jan. 1. Last year, 4,400 fires burned 340,000 acres. In 1998, 4,800 fires burned 500,000 acres.

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