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WEDNESDAY, MAY 30, 2007
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Up in smoke in Alabama
Arson blamed for fire near Fort Payne; flat tire caused I-20 blaze; state monitoring air here

From staff, AP reports

Alabama is so dry that a spark resulting from a flat tire can close part of an interstate highway.

Authorities blame arson for a 142-acre forest fire in North Alabama. Grass fires in the Tennessee Valley are charring acreage and threatening structures.

Citing the continuing drought and smoke blowing into the state from fires in southern Georgia and northern Florida, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management warned that the very young, the elderly and people with respiratory problems should limit outdoor activity until conditions improve.

In Calhoun and Cleburne counties in East Alabama, a fire was still smoldering Tuesday along Interstate 20, but five miles of an eastbound lane were open again. On Monday, the lane had to be closed because of smoke from a roadside blaze.

Heflin Fire Chief Rudy Rooks said a truck towing a trailer had a flat tire, and the driver tried to keep going. The tire wore away, exposing the wheel's metal rim, which sent sparks showering into the grass along the highway's outer edge.

"It just lit little fires for about a mile down the road," Rooks said. "As dry and windy as it was ... it just went."

Authorities are trying to determine who caused a fire that threatened hundreds of acres of hilly woodland in the Little River National Preserve in extreme Northeast Alabama near Fort Payne. The remains were still smoking five days after the fire began Thursday.

"This was an arson-related fire. There have been no arrests made at this time, but it's still under investigation," said Coleen Vansant, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Forestry Commission.

An estimated 142 acres were burned in the nearly 14,000-acre preserve, which includes DeSoto State Park.

The state said it was monitoring air-quality readings and would provide daily forecasts for Decatur, Huntsville, Birmingham and Mobile.

Good air quality

ADEM forecast good air quality for the Decatur area Wednesday.

Patrick Gatlin, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Huntsville, said a slight haze might hang over the Decatur area, but it's not just smoke from fires.

Gatlin said moisture in the air mixes with pollutants, including smoke from fires in other states, smoke from local fires and smog from factories, to create the haze.

Smoke seen recently came in on winds from the southeast, but as fires in Georgia die down, the smoke is clearing, Gatlin said.

In Decatur, firefighters put out small grass fires on Spring Avenue Southwest near Beltline Road on Tuesday afternoon and another at Chestnut Grove Elementary School on Tuesday evening.

Fire Lt. Don Palmer said about 10 square feet of mulch on the elementary school playground caught fire. The fire on Spring Avenue was not much larger.

Without being put out quickly, however, small fires could turn into big problems, Palmer said.

"With the dry conditions, it's really bad," Palmer said. "The grass is so dry right now, you could actually have grass burn with water under it because there is no moisture in the grass."

Volunteer fire departments in the area have had a few close calls recently, with large grass fires threatening to destroy homes and forests.

Firefighters stopped a grass fire that swept across a 25-acre hayfield on Hays Mill Road in northern Limestone County about 50 feet from a residence Saturday.

Spark ignites hay

Workers were preparing to bale hay when a spark from equipment apparently ignited the hay, firefighters said.

A locked-up bearing on a hay baler turned into a 10-acre blaze May 22 near Somerville. Firefighters said they contained the fire just as it threatened to run wild through woods that stretch from Curry Chapel Road to the Talucah area.

Morgan County is under a no-burn order from the state fire marshal's office until Sept. 1, meaning no burn permits are being issued.

According to the United States Drought Monitor, the entire central Tennessee Valley remains in the extreme drought category.

This is the second-worst of the five-level classification system the monitor uses, indicative of at least a once-in-20-year drought.

Huntsville is 16 inches below normal rainfall so far this year and 4 inches below normal for May.

Gatlin said the next chance of rain is late this week, possibly Friday.

"We're eventually going to get some rain in the area towards the end of the week, but it's going to be real isolated and scattered," Gatlin said.

Copyright 2005 THE DECATUR DAILY. All rights reserved.
AP contributed to this report.

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