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Date of Issue: May 17, 2007

Wildfires blanket Island in smoke

Smoke on the water
A satellite image shows several fires burning in Georgia and Florida last week, and smoke plumes blowing across the state into the Gulf of Mexico. The image also shows a strong coastal low moving toward the southeast Atlantic coast. Islander Image: Courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Smoke from wildfires in Florida and Georgia blankets the beach in Anna Maria. Islander Photo: Lisa Neff

Wildfires in Georgia and Florida burned hundreds of thousands of acres last week and sent plumes of smoke across the state, creating a dense haze and dropping ash on Anna Maria Island.

The smoke was especially heavy on the Island throughout the day May 8 and in the afternoon May 11.

"You can see the ash on my glasses," said Islander Phyllis Taylor as she left the U.S. Post Office in Anna Maria last Friday. "I don't think I ever remember it being this bad."

The number of fires in Florida fell from 236 on May 10 to 223 on May 11, but three massive fires continued to burn as severe drought conditions carried into the weekend.

Conditions prompted the National Weather Service out of Ruskin to issue a smoke advisory for the Tampa Bay region May 11: "The smoke and ash will pose serious hazards to persons with breathing problems and all visitors with breathing problems are advised to remain indoors the remainder of the day."

At the City Pier in Anna Maria, people complained of dull headaches as they fished in a gray-blue haze that nearly obscured the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in the distance.

"At least it hasn't hurt the fishing," said Manny Rodriguez of Bradenton.

On the beaches, from Bean Point in Anna Maria to Coquina in Bradenton Beach, people complained of a shortness of breath, irritated eyes, runny noses and scratchy throats.

"It's not a pleasant smokiness, like a chimney fire or a barbecue," said beachgoer Paul Foster of Longboat Key. "Smells like destruction."

The wildfires drew firefighters from across the country and all parts of Florida, including Manatee County. Brett Pollock, deputy chief for West Manatee Fire Rescue District, left to assist with fighting fires in Lake and Flagler counties more than a week ago.

A member of one of four state interagency teams, Pollock was responsible last week for overseeing the safety of about 200 firefighters who worked night and day shifts to extinguish wildfires.

His home base last week was the Flagler County Emergency Operations Center.

"Basically when I got here, I took a tour of the area," Pollock said via phone. "I looked at the apparatus on the site. I looked at the hazards [firefighters] were dealing with and there were a few hazards out there we had to address."

The fires Pollock responded to were not the ones sending smoke into the Gulf.

"Those are in north Florida and Georgia," said Pollock May 11, the seventh day of what could be a 14-day assignment for him. "We had the same issue. We were socked in with smoke from the fires up north."

Pollock, at press time, was the only WMFR officer deployed to work the wildfires.

"We haven't been told how long we are going to be here," he said. "But the state is still in a pretty dire situation."

WMFR Capt. Tom Sousa said the district is ready for additional deployment.

Sousa added that generally the Island doesn't face wildfire threats and that the district had received few calls from residents inquiring about the smoke and haze.