Big Cypress fire continues causing headaches for drivers

Corey Perrine/Staff
At State Road 29 and I-75 southbound, a forest fire is seen burning in Big Cypress National Preserve, Collier County Saturday, March 30, 2013.

Photo by COREY PERRINE, Naples Daily News // Buy this photo

Corey Perrine/Staff At State Road 29 and I-75 southbound, a forest fire is seen burning in Big Cypress National Preserve, Collier County Saturday, March 30, 2013.

Video from NBC-2

A brush fire in Big Cypress National Preserve that intermittently closed Alligator Alley over the weekend continues to cause headaches for drivers and fire officials.

The brush fire started around 1 p.m. Friday, growing to roughly 20,000 acres Monday. The resulting smoke caused officials to close Interstate 75 from mile marker 101 to mile marker 23 from about 3:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Monday.

State Road 29 also was shut down from Oil Well Road south to U.S. 41.

During times when the Alley was closed, drivers were forced to reroute to U.S. 41, which is under construction from State Road 29 to the Miami-Dade County line. Businesses such as North Star Seafood, which makes deliveries from Florida’s east coast to the west coast, were particularly inconvenienced.

“It’s been problematic,” said Adam Levine, a salesman with North Star, which delivers seafood from Pompano Beach to the Gulf Coast, from Marco Island to Cape Coral. “It has its challenges, but fortunately enough we can take 41. It causes more late deliveries, but it has not actually prevented deliveries.”

As the alternate route, U.S. 41 has been congested but not unbearable, said Department of Transportation spokeswoman Debbie Tower.

“Sporadically, there’s been some heavier traffic now and again that might slow traffic a bit, but no backups, nothing like that,” she said. “Traffic is moving but, again, obviously people need to expect traffic conditions to be a bit different and a bit slower than what they’re used to.”

When it comes to Alligator Alley, public safety has always been a concern, said Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Lt. Greg Bueno. When he was at mile marker 75 on Monday morning, Bueno said he could only see 200 feet in front of him.

“It’s an eerie feeling,” he said.

A string of deadly crashes south of Gainesville last year caused by smoke and fog that led to low visibility is on the minds of those who make the decisions to close major highways.

“Of course that was tragic,” Bueno said. “None of us want anything like that to happen.”

Bueno said it is hard to anticipate if and when closures will happen, but noted that FHP officials planned to continue eyeing State Road 29 overnight as a possibility.

Drivers can help state troopers by paying attention to the road and limiting the distractions in their vehicles, he said.

The National Park Service, the Florida Forestry Service, several local fire crews and one hotshot crew from Virginia, specializing in wildfire suppression, are helping put out the Big Cypress fire. As of Monday evening, the fire was about 40 percent contained, said Ryan Stubblebine, a spokesman for Big Cypress.

Officials said the fire began north of Fire Prairie Trail along Turner River Road and is burning to the west toward State Road 29 and north to Interstate 75. The fire approached some homes late Friday.

It is being investigated as a possible arson, Stubblebine said.

With dry weather conditions, state fire officials say brush fires will start peaking this month and continue in the spring.

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