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Arson Suspected In Florida Fires

Arson was believed the cause of the blaze still burning Friday, even after rain overnight helped firefighters battling the 1,050-acre fire in Taylor and Lafayette counties, said Peggy Cane, a duty officer with Florida's Division of Forestry.

"They're still not calling it 'under control' until they're sure," Cane said about the fire, located midway between Gainesville and Tallahassee.

So far this year, arsonists have set more than 500 fires, although dry weather conditions are prime for a repeat of last year's rampant wildfires, forestry officials warn.

A total of 1,650 wildfires have burned about 35,000 acres this year. Ten firefighters have been injured.

"If someone sets one [fire] intentionally, they'll set another one intentionally, and then you start developing a pattern, which is what we're seeing now," State Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford said.

Blinding smoke hampered firefighters' efforts Thursday to contain the blaze in northern Florida.

"At first, we thought it was just a brush fire," said resident Jeff Santella. "Next thing I know, I see the flames. What a mess. It burned right to our property line."

Santella said he and four other families removed valuables and pets from their threatened homes. The fire burned within the city limits, mostly on land slated for future subdivisions. No injuries or damaged buildings were reported.

Crawford announced a statewide effort Thursday to hunt down the arsonists. He said the department is shifting resources so every available agent will be out trying to stop arsonists.

But with tinderbox-like conditions throughout the state, new fires are popping up easily, said Gene Madden, state Forestry Division spokesman.