Fla. tourist areas skirt wildfires

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Since Jan. 1, thousands of acres in Florida have been consumed by drought-induced wildfires, but although many fires were still raging in central and northern counties, at press time they were not a major threat to the larger tourist zones.

During Memorial Day weekend, 139 fires broke out, forestry officials reported.

At press time, only minimal rain relief was in sight. While the rain is welcome, accompanying lightning can set off new fires, forestry officials warned.

One effect on tourism, according to a Visit Florida spokesman, is that campfires have been banned statewide.

Also, some excursion boat operators must limit passenger numbers to prevent scraping the boats' bottoms, as water levels have lowered due to the drought, according to local newspaper reports.

Officials at Orlando's theme parks said that no impact on attendance from nationwide wildfire publicity has occurred. Fireworks at Walt Disney World and Sea World continue but with extra precautions.

On June 2, six accidents caused by smoke from wildfires forced the closure of Interstate 95 for 14 miles between Titusville and Cocoa.

Recently the statewide average on the Keetch-Bryam Drought Index was 629; a reading of 800 is equal to desert conditions.

Sixteen Florida counties posted more than 700, and 34 counties topped 600.

A recently activated hot-link icon on the Visit Florida Web site, www.flausa.com, connects users to the State of Florida Emergency Operations Center's Web site, which also can be accessed independently at www.dca.state.fl.us/eoc/.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jeb Bush activated a National Guard unit to fight one fire and has made arrangements to request out-of-state firefighting assistance, if necessary.

Florida's worst wildfire outbreak, in terms of slowing tourist arrivals, occurred in spring and summer 1998.

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