Fire smoke, fog close 17-mile stretch of I-75

MANATEE -- Smoke from a controlled burn that got out of control at Little Manatee River State Park in Hillsborough County mixed with fog early Tuesday and caused such dangerous driving conditions that a stretch of Interstate 75 was closed for almost five hours.

The 17-mile stretch was closed from 3:15 to 8:13 a.m. from mile marker 229 in Manatee at Moccasin Wallow Road to mile marker 246 at Big Ben Road in Hillsborough County because of low visibility, said Lt. Chris Miller, a Florida Highway Patrol spokesman.

“I wasn’t out there, but we don’t close down a roadway unless there is significant reduction in visibility to where it becomes dangerous,” Miller said. “Visibility can go from 500 feet to zero within seconds in conditions like that.”

Interstate traffic was detoured around the smoky hazard, and there were no reported accidents, Miller said.

The fire was contained in Little Manatee River State Park’s borders and did not threaten any homes or businesses in the area, said Chris Kintner, a Florida Division of Forestry spokeswoman.

Shortly after 8 a.m., visibility had improved and the determination was made to reopen the road, Miller said.

Workers with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection were doing a controlled burn on 25 acres of Little Manatee River State Park in Hillsborough County at 2:30 p.m. Monday when winds got higher than predicted, and the fire jumped fire lines, Kintner said.

By 9 p.m. Monday, two crews from the Division of Forestry and firefighters from Hillsborough County finally had the fire contained, but not before 108 acres of park land burned, Kintner added.

The wildfire consumed a section of park that had never been burned before and included small oak trees and sand pines, which produced a lot more smoke than the 25-acre burn location, which had low vegetation from frequent scheduled burning.

“These were areas that they were planning to burn,” Kintner said.

One building at the park was damaged by the wild fire, Kintner added.

“It wasn’t the fire that caused the problem on the interstate, it was the resultant fire smoke mixed with fog,” Kintner added. “Usually, the fog follows drainage and you have creeks and rivers in that area.”

This is Florida’s fire season, when fallen limbs and branches from the winter make up a readily available fuel source for wild fires.

Also, young plants are beginning to bloom, sapping moisture from the earth, which further results in dry conditions, Kintner said.

“This is the time of year when we worry about fires coming off the shoulders of the roads from hot mufflers and dry grass,” Kintner said. “People need to use extreme caution now.”

Areas of fog are expected today throughout Manatee until 9 a.m.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.