Spring Wildfires, Floods Wreak Havoc from Coast to Coast

By Roger Petterson | May 11, 2007

Nature’s fury made life miserable from one end of the United States to the other, with people forced out of their homes by wildfires near both coasts and the Canadian border and by major flooding in the Midwest.

And although the calendar still said spring, the first named storm of the year was whipping up surf on beaches along the southeastern coast.

However, it was not quite a day for the record books.

“It’s a major flood,” National Weather Service meteorologist Suzanne Fortin said Wednesday of the flooding in Missouri. “It won’t be a record breaker, but it will be in the top three.”

But in southern Georgia a three-week-old fire had become that state’s biggest in five decades after charring 167 square miles (433 sq. kilometers) of forest and swamp.

Smoke-filled air created a burning smell and a dusting of ashes that coated cars and buildings through much of Florida and southeastern Georgia. The haze over most of Florida closed several highways and sent people with breathing problems indoors.

The flooding was produced by the drenching weekend thunderstorms across the Plains states that also devastated Greensburg, Kansas. In addition to 11 tornado deaths, two drowning deaths were blamed on the storms, one each in Oklahoma and Kansas.

High water had poured over the tops of at least 20 levees along the Missouri River and other streams in the state, authorities said Wednesday.

Missouri National Guard troops were helping. And Highway Patrol troopers were working 24-hour shifts near Big Lake, a village town of about 150 permanent residents in the state’s northwest corner, which was inundated by five levee breaks along the Missouri River and four smaller ones on other streams, said patrol Lt. John Hotz.

No injuries were reported but the Missouri Water Patrol rescued about 20 people from their flooded homes.

In Missouri’s Jackson County, authorities evacuated 300 to 400 residents on Wednesday. At least a dozen homes were partially under water from the Missouri River, a dispatcher said.

In central Missouri, the state capital, Jefferson City, was preparing for flooding. After floods in 1993 and 1995, the city raised the elevation of its riverside sewage treatment plant, and the federal government bought out scores of homes on the north shore of the river, but the airport and businesses are still vulnerable.

On the West Coast, in view of many Los Angeles residents, a blaze had covered more than 800 acres (324 hectares) in the city’s sprawling Griffith Park behind the iconic Griffith Observatory.

The danger to homes south of the park had eased Wednesday and many of the hundreds of residents evacuated overnight were allowed to return. However, fire officials warned that conditions could change.

No flames were showing by evening, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told a press conference at the observatory, and firefighters expected full containment by Thursday night.

“The tide is turning in our favor,” the mayor said.

At least 30 companies of firefighters were to remain in case the 817-acre (330-hectare) blaze came back to life.

The fire appeared to have been accidental, said Battalion chief John Miller, who oversees arson investigations.

The fire destroyed Dante’s View, a trailside terraced garden on Mount Hollywood.

“This is a tragic sunrise,” City Councilman Tom LaBonge said while surveying the damage. “You look right there and you’d think you were at the observatory looking at Mars.”

In northern Florida a wildfire had forced the evacuation of about 250 homes, said Annaleasa Winter, a state forestry spokeswoman. That fire had blackened up to 18,000 acres (7,285 hectares) and was 35 percent contained on Wednesday night.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said the state had more than 220 active fires Wednesday that had charred a total of 125 square miles (324 sq. kilometers).

In Georgia officials issued a mandatory evacuation Wednesday for an area that they said by Thursday may be in the path of a 107,000-acre (43,302-hectare) blaze in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, the largest recorded blaze since state record-keeping began in 1957.

Smoke was spreading across wide areas of Florida as wind circulated around Subtropical Storm Andrea, centered about 100 miles (160 kilometers) off the Georgia coast with top sustained wind around 45 mph (72 kph). The National Weather Service forecast that the storm would show little movement and dissipate near the coast in four days.

Battling the blazes will not get much immediate help from rain. Forecasters said no significant downpours were expected over land through at least Thursday morning. The storm’s lightning could also spark off more fires, meteorologists said.

Elsewhere, a wildfire near the Canadian border in northeastern Minnesota had covered more than 34 square miles Wednesday, adding more than 8 square miles (20 sq. kilometers) in one day, authorities said. It had destroyed 45 buildings, including multimillion-dollar homes, and firefighters said it was just 5 percent contained.

More than 100 people had been removed from their homes in the path of the fire.

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