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Smoky Haze Descends On Florida

Another brush fire raged in Florida Saturday, forcing officials to shut down Interstate 95. As clouds of smoke rolled billowed across the highway, cars were detoured off the interstate near Orlando for several hours.

Meanwhile, in the small town of Waldo, residents went about their daily activities despite a smoky haze from wildfires still smoldering about a mile away.

"A treetop is gone. A driveway is burned out. But the structures remain," Fire Chief Ed Bailey said Saturday. He said crews would put retardant foam on houses Saturday and widen the fire line to prevent the blaze from getting any closer to the town.

"We do have some burning within the burned area. It's all contained," he said.

Wildfires that burned more than 8,000 acres of commercial timberland west of here in four days were weakened Friday by an overnight rain and contained beyond plowed firebreaks.

A few days earlier, most of the town's 1,000 residents were cleared out, the streets left eerily empty and the air filled with gray-brown smoke. Above there was the din of helicopters ferrying water to the fire.

No one was hurt. One family's barns were the only buildings damaged.

The smoke was so thick that motorists along Waldo's main street used headlights driving to the hardware store and the Coastal Mart gas station.

"I feel so grateful to the fire fighters and the people who flew the choppers. They flat worked," said town resident Fay Hall.

After being evacuated during the week, she and her friends and neighbors began moving back into their homes Friday.

Meanwhile, President Clinton declared Florida a disaster area, giving emergency relief to exhausted fire fighters battling raging wildfires that consumed 8,000 acres in less than a week.

A federal emergency declaration was expanded Friday from seven counties to cover the entire Sunshine State, paving the way for federal forestry workers to help fight blazes still burning in northeast Florida.

"It pays for any federal equipment and people brought in," David Greenberg, spokesman for the state Division of Emergency Management, said early Saturday. "The state Division of Forestry is maxed out."

Since May 25, at least 137 fires have erupted in 34 of Florida's 67 counties. A total of nearly 49,000 acres have burned in record heat and little rain.

The fires have resulted in at least 14 injuries, one death and about $13 million in losses statewide. About 12,000 acres of timberland have been destroyed, for an estimated loss of $10 million.

With very little rain during the past month in several regions, state officials said this year's May and June could be the driest in Florida history.

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