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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Paynes Prairie brush fire continues to smoke, cause still unknown

<p>A tractor drives across a burned section of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park on Monday afternoon. The smoke from the prairie fire caused a series of crashes Sunday morning that killed at least 10 people.</p>

A tractor drives across a burned section of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park on Monday afternoon. The smoke from the prairie fire caused a series of crashes Sunday morning that killed at least 10 people.

The cause of the fire that led to a 20-vehicle wreck, claiming at least 10 lives Sunday, is still being investigated as of Monday night.

Smoke continued to drift from Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park across U.S. 441 and Interstate 75 Monday as officials worked to douse the charred underbrush.

Florida Forest Service was dispatched to the prairie fire at 2:47 p.m. Saturday, said Ludie Bond, spokeswoman for the Florida Forest Service. Various organizations have been working to contain and extinguish the fire ever since.

Bond said the fire was not started by lightning and was not the result of a controlled burn, but the cause isn't known yet. She said the fire has been contained to 62 acres.

Bond walked around the spongy, charred underbrush Monday as officials soaked the prairie with tens of thousands of gallons of water. A small puff of white smoke rose with each step she took.

This fire presents a special set of hurdles because it burned deep into the underbrush, which is about 10 feet of decomposing grasses and other plants. It's not a matter of simply dousing the flames.

"This fire you can't put out," she said. "There's no way you could drown this."

Trucks from the Florida Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and other organizations drove around the perimeter of the charred, smoking section of the prairie. They soaked the peat and set up sprinklers every 50 feet around the edge of the burned ground.

Smoke spurted from hot spots in the ground like small fountains. The air smelled of a campfire as trucks drove through, kicking up more smoke and ash.

David Jowers, Paynes Prairie park manager, said the primary concern now is controlling the smoke in order to keep drivers safe.

The animals that live in the prairie, including horses, birds and bison, know to run from smoke and are not in danger, he said.

Jowers spent Monday afternoon on the prairie with other responders, working to get sprinklers set to water the area.

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He said this fire wasn't the largest he's seen. He said there was a wildfire in August that was larger.

Bond said the burned area has to continue to be doused because low humidity and winds this week could help dry out the area again. She said Mother Nature was doing its best to make conditions difficult for responders.

"If you don't do thorough mop up, it could dry out and flare up," she said.

A tractor drives across a burned section of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park on Monday afternoon. The smoke from the prairie fire caused a series of crashes Sunday morning that killed at least 10 people.

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